Singing Horse Press, 1998, firstname.lastname@example.org
I first read Linh Dinhs Drunkard Boxing soon after it was released in 1998. At that time, I was just beginning to feel that most contemporary poetry was boring, dull, and unadventurous. So much of it seemed to be either pastoral, navel-obsessed, or consumed by formal considerations. Foremost in my mind was that poetry consistently seemed to lack drama or conflict. The poems in Drunkard Boxing, however, could hardly be described as dull. Of the countless books of poetry I have read in the last few years, Drunkard Boxing may still be my favorite.
The poems of Drunkard Boxing growl, astound, chill. 26 of some of the most stunning and stirring short poems I have read to date, bending form to illustrate conflict in perfectly imprecise confrontational language. Foremost, however, it is clear that the poems in Drunkard Boxing possess what I felt I had otherwise been missing: subject matter that is interesting, revelatory, and difficult.
The title of Linh Dinh's book indicates exactly the violent and squalid thrust of the collection, replete with its many confrontational gestures. The poems conjure a world of cruelty, desperation, suffering, & confusions of identity. You do not have to go far into the collection to find this world. It starts with the very first poem.
The opening couplet of the first poem ("Laced Farina") assaults us: "Who touched your hair? /A rifle butt to the side of the head." The poem's violent gesture immediately confronts and immerses us. We, the readers, immediately become both gaper traffic and the accident, unable to turn away, unable to be uninvolved. The poem projects itself into our personal space in a depersonalized and violent way. That is, our personal concerns about someone touching our hair is met with someone being struck by a weapon in "the head," not "your head." The poem continues to explore the contrast between the illusion of "everyday" "clean" "wholesome" American living and something far crueler, squalid, and painful, closing with: "Who played with your sex? / To be lying here in this ditch." Again we are further confronted by the call-and-response of the poem and its rugged prosody. Even the form of the opening poem participates in the dissonance: the brutal poem appears to be a blank sonnet, a sonnet that does not deliver the universal grace of love. . "Laced Farina" delivers us into a ditch, violated, injured, molested.
Drunkard Boxing is not merely a thrash metal collection of bullet wounds and tumble. It is often humorous. In "Whoaaaa!!!" a sort of childish shouting confronts us:
And now, for our first ride in the bus!
What communal happiness. What blessings!
Everyone going the same way!
Whoaaaaa!!! Get away from me!!!
The humor here confronts, leaps right off the page into my head, even as the poem mocks its own obsessive fascination with exclamations.
For those of you looking for the confessions of a Vietnamese-American wishing to discuss Vietnam War politics in any strict sense, you will be disappointed. We might get close to revelations about what it might be like to be part of the post-war Vietnamese Diaspora, as in the ostensibly contemporary California setting of "The Dead":
The nine-year-old hockey puck
Bounced from the fender of an olive truck
Now bounces a leather ball on his forehead.
The old lady who scrounged potted meat
From foreign men lying in a mortar pit
Now sells gold jewelry in Santa Barbara.
The dead are not dead but wave at pretty strangers
From their pick-up trucks on Bolsa Avenue.
They sit at formica tables smoking discount cigarettes.
Some have dyed their hair, changed their name to Bill.
But the living, some of them, like to dig up the dead,
Dress them in their native costumes, shoot them again,
Watch their bodies rise in slow motion.
"The Dead", like some of Linhs other poems, does not confess what it is like to be Vietnamese-American.The poem shows grudgingly perhaps but seems to refuse to tell. "The Dead" in part illustrates the vagaries of both unwanted memories and the escape from those memories. More potently, perhaps, the poem is about others trying to force those reminiscences of the Vietnam War and the ensuing escape upon the survivors. Even when "The Dead" skirts the issue, it seems to say, "Please,we are just trying to live our lives now." It says, "Your reminders are violent." It says, "Please, do not ask." The poem manages somehow to live up to its own gestures of resistance to any indulgence in cheap American self-help-esque confession.
Obviously "The Dead"s simultaneous telling and refusal to tell creates a conflict that helps propel the poem. The narrator of the poem brings up the difficult subject but then seems to say, "Please dont bring it up." The conflict makes "The Dead" perhaps one of the most moving poems I may ever read; the poem embodies conflict. The dead who are not dead, sitting at Formica tables smoking discount cigarettes with new names and dyed hair, selling jewelry on the street, are dug up by the living and shot again, forced to re-experience the horrors that happened in slow motion many years ago. The sort of story made for poetry. Drama of course requires conflict. Demonstrating such a complicated conflict so cogently, so beautifully, so poetically, as Linh does in "The Dead" is an accomplishment that can be found all over Drunkard Boxing, not just in "The Dead."
Please do not allow me to mislead you. The collection is riddled with a sense of war, with fresh bullet wounds. As John Ashbery wrote in Girls on the Run, "the climate is military." Soldiers, guns, grenades, bullet wounds, foxholes, and mortar pits populate Drunkard Boxing. Such martial dangers do not inhabit Linh's poems the way they would, say, a Hollywood WWII movie. The violence seems to colonize the poems, not as some foreign invader but instead as a set of fragments of some unwanted dream or as pieces of deliberately neglected memories: as shards of a film of modern war that has never been made.
The resilience of Drunkard Boxings narrator(s) to suffering and squalor is inspiring. One such poem in Drunkard Boxing that embodies resilience is "All Around What Empties Out":
I live here because I do not have very much money and this is true of all my neighbors as well. In essence, I am one of lifes losers and drifters, shunning responsibility whenever it arose. After each meal, I lick my plastic spoon in a gesture of solidarity with an inanimate object. Did you know that I was once fucked with my own spoon? This very spoon. And then, later, with half a razor. From the seam of my scrotum to the rim of my anus is about 15/16ths of an inch. Its called the perineum, meaning, I think, in Greek, all around what empties out.
The narrator of "All Around What Empties Out" tells us, nonchalantly, of what might have been a horrific experience, a chain of moments that may have involved subjugation and torture. Yet at the same time the poem delivers its dreary reminders it also indicates that the violent world has survivors. It tells vaguely of some transgression with an eerie calm that allows the poem to resolve into something larger, providing the poem with a great deal of dramatic propulsion.
The poems collected in Drunkard Boxing navigate a poetic world of squalor and grime. Some of the pieces appear as verse, some as prose poems, while many seem to inhabit a gray area between prose and verse, such as "Ash" or "Self Defense for Women," or even the quasi-ghazal "A Childhood In Vermont." In Drunkard Boxing you may find many different narrators or at least a variety of distinct perspectives. The poems arrive not as confessions of the man named Linh Dinh but instead as brief illustrations of sufferings, poverty, and conflicts.
Drunkard Boxing's poems also frequently seem to reflect a slight sense of foreignness and translation. The tellings often present themselves in language slightly askew from that of a native English speaker. Whether this sense of translation is a deliberate affect in Linh's writing or a consequence of Linhs admitted lack of complete fluency in English is of little matter. What matters is that the timbre of translation imparts the slightest degree of alienation needed to make these poems overwhelmingly convincing and moving.
Drunkard Boxing is painfully gorgeous, a collection of small flowers with large thorns. Some of the flowers are fake; they are sometimes tacky and dirty. Some of them come from a clowns lapel and are filled with water, just waiting to squirt us. The collection is rife with evil, a sort of post-postmodern Les Fleurs Du Mal.
Linh Dinhs poems in Drunkard Boxing make me angry. They make me sad. They sometimes confuse me or make me loath. They confront me; they get in my face. Foremost, the poems in Drunkard Boxing remind me my body is filled with intangible memories and moving blood that is easily spilled.