Not So Bad

Linh Dinh - Acoustics. This quick, deftly constructed prose poem by the Saigon-born painter and poet Linh Dinh arrives in three waves, each more expansive than the previous. In the first, some peculiar rituals prove incapable of defeating the speaker's insomnia. The second chronicles the consequences (somewhere between comic and catastrophic) of the same speaker's acute myopia. The third testifies to a dangerously overdeveloped auditory capacity, looping back to lend a sinister cast to the innocuous enough sounding title. At the end of the first two movements, the speaker is prone (sleepless in bed, regaining consciousness on the sidewalk under the gaze of passersby); by the end of the third, he's been pulverized by a distant whisper, though apparently not beyond the possibility of regeneration.

The piece starts fast, with hardly any pause between the three phrasal sequences of the first movement. Semantically, it's impossible to know what the first two phrases (and hence the poem) are leading to until the third recruits them to the frame of insomnia. The second movement commences with a new theme (the speaker's characterization of his "piss poor" eyesight). Anecdotal evidence, in an approximation of the past iterative tense, is offered in support of the initial self-characterization. We also sample the reveries the speaker is apparently prone to, note his taste for alliterative clichés like "long lost friend" and "dear dead mother," and learn that the speaker is unreliable (that mother is still alive, or so he says). When the anecdote resumes, it is clear that a decisive event has been elided. The speaker has been dropped flat by (his collision with) something and lost consciousness. Unable to focus a gaze on the world he moves in, he has fallen inert and made into the focus of a collective gaze poised somewhere between pity and menace. When he comes to, there is no friend, no mother, just a horde of strangers.

The third movement consists of thirteen phrases (about the number of the first two combined) that unfold over a twenty-two second stretch (the whole poem takes about 54 seconds to read from title to final word). Positioned in explicit contrast to the previous movement ("on the other hand"), it opens with a statement we'll soon know to be an understatement: "my hearing ... is not so bad." In fact, the Poe-like acuity of the speaker's hearing is such that a whisper, "even thousands of miles away," can reach him (the enumeration of the conditions that factor into the reception is one of the nice surprises in the piece). Each such acoustical event, however, demolishes the overly-tuned instrument that receives it. Like the accident in the second movement, in the third any comment on the excruciating pain that must accompany the pulverization of "smallest bones" in the speaker's body is elided. With a wince, the poem falls back into silence.

Though Linh's is a prose poem, in the listening it divides into segments that correspond to line and stanza: the complete sentence comprising the first movement/stanza falls naturally into two-second lines, for example. And when the voiced-units are smaller (say just a second in length), Dinh works in an audible exhale-inhale cycle between them. This is most noticeable in the middle of the second movement, where the speaker populates the sidewalk he's on with spectral figures waving at him. The effect is one of hurriedness and exertion, perhaps also mild panic. Linh also imposes a tripartite division on a sentence that might easily be voiced as one unit: "My VISion / on the OTHer HAND / is NOT so BAD" (stressed syllables in all cap). The control of pace and pause and the use of emphatic stress on "not" impose prosodic features on the grammatical structure. As for other poetic devices, the most interesting might be in the second line, where an already tricky minimal pair (warm~worm) echoes, shorn of a /w/, in the penultimate syllable: "WARM [verb] half a WORM in an ARM pit."

Brief interview with Linh Dinh at Here Comes Everybody • Susan M. Schultz, "Most Beautiful Words: Linh Dinh's Poetics of Disgust" at Jacket 27.• Third Factory XML feed here. • Elsewhere on Third Factory: index, ensemble, nb.

[Originally posted 4 August 2006]

Wednesday -- 20 December 2006 -- permalink

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