All Around What Empties Out
by Chris Pusateri
One of the basic principles of architecture deals with the division of space: a structure modulates the flow of air, light, and elements, and in doing so, defines how interior space can function. Lessons in structure are not lost on Linh Dinh, whose first book-length collection, All Around What Empties Out, addresses such concerns in the opening pages:
A house with no doors. One enters by climbing through a window. Any window. Break glass if necessary. An entry should always be illicit. Unobstructed entrances are not worth passing through.
--(from "Traditional Vietnamese Architecture")
Imagine a structure such as the one that Dinh describes. Access to it requires the use of unorthodox techniques, such as those used by thieves. When entered, it yields, as the poem goes on to relate, an interior more akin to a funhouse than to a living space: furniture and carpet on the ceiling, a naked bulb placed squarely into the middle of an otherwise bare floor. The toilet, also fixed to the ceiling, is made not of porcelain, but of papier-mâché. The reader, accustomed to buildings that function, is left asking: who could populate such an impractical domicile? And what sort of life could be led in that space?
Poetry, like architecture, traffics in the creation of forms. Poems subdivide space, delineate function (working with language rather than joists and drywall), and furnish an interior into which readers are invited. Often this requires us to climb through windows, break glass, and act as felons--though who but an inquisitive reader would delight in finding papier-mâché toilets sneering down from the ceiling?
To read Dinh's book, one must be ready to meet obstructions at every turn. Like the house described in "Traditional Vietnamese Architecture," Dinh's work appears, from a distance, to be nothing more than a series of ordinary structures. His poems certainly bear all the usual attributes: titles, lines, white space, few unusual spatial configurations. Yet as one draws closer, the details make apparent what distance has hidden--a content that belies a bawdy brand of humor, a sharp political wit, and a willingness to offend in the service of accessibility. These qualities are the windows through which the reader hoists himself.
In an age where preoccupation with form has become perhaps the primary poetic concern, Linh Dinh presents us with a selection of radical content. From suckling pigs to exposed assholes to problems of ethnic representations, Dinh's work compels us to evaluate content not as an extension of form (making it fit to be dismissed) but as an entity in its own right. If, as Dinh suggests in his poem "Longitudes," "A provincial often thinks himself superior to a cosmopolitan / Because he knows every nook of a stinking alley," then perhaps what we have in Dinh's work is a synthesis of these two binaries: the ability to provide detail without losing sight of the larger picture.