Empire in Funkville

"The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetic nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem [...] One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women [...] Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall."--Walt Whitman, from his preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855.

Whitman's projection of the poet's central and celebrated role in American society never came to pass, obviously. Many of our best have been ignored, angry drunkards, suicides or madhouse inmates, while others groomed themselves into clowns, not wise fools, mind you, just giggly or lugubrious. (But clowns are born, not made, you're huffing, slamming your wireless mouse on the table.) Eliot changed his citizenship.

With his desolate blog and countable band of readers, identifiable by name, face and even favorite beer if not deodorant, the American poet lives in a forgotten dwelling furthest away from the corridors of money and power. Each morning, brushing his uninsured or just barely tenured teeth, thank god, the American poet is glad and relieved to be reintroduced to his best and only attentive reader. Speaking of arithmetic, Don King said, "If you can count your money, you ain't got none."

"Where do you shop, darling?"
"At the Mall of America, of course, and you?"
"At the Mall of American Poetry, where nearly every item is free and there's never a problem with parking."

Click on this link and buy my book, please.
I have a new book coming out, it's my best yet, you'll see.
All of my poems are online now.
The reading is free, obviously, but I'll also provide free (American) cheese, free of charge. It'll be a cheese orgy, I promise.
Please come, I'll put you on top of the guest list.
Please come, I'll grant you a backstage pass where you can meet me (unplugged), my doppelgänger and e-persona, free of charge.

Over the years, I've sold most of my books when even zinc pennies became scarce. A copy of Heinrich von Kleist, An Abyss Deep Enough: Selected Letters, Essays, and Anecdotes, for example, would yield just enough fiat currency for a packet of Ramen Pride and a very proud can of Spam. In a lost volume, I read that Walt Whitman had an office job where he slept, Bartleby like, under his desk at night. Even more fantastic, I read that a track jumping train destroyed Edgar Allan Poe's headstone before it could be erected over his grave. I learnt that a half naked Ezra Pound was kept in a cage under the sun, where he busied himself translating from the Chinese. These wretched examples gave me courage and convinced me that if the greatest poets in the greatest country with the fullest poetic potential at any time upon the earth, mankind's greatest experiment, never to be bankrupt, a shining plantation on a hill, blah, blah, blah, could be so miserably fated, then I should shut my freedom fries grinder and learn how to think and write, one botched phrase or linebreak at a time. At a 1984 Leon Golub lecture, some dork, not me, asked, "What advice would you give a young painter?" Without hesitation, he said, "Quit! It's not worth it!”

Every young writer or artist starts out believing that he or she's a chosen one. What choice does one have? One must think this way to keep going until it's too late to change or death or until one has enough of failure, rejection or poverty to agonize over a caesura. Mired in irrelevance, the American poet has nothing to lose but words.

Countries can also be led or deluded into thinking they're exceptional, none more so than the United of States of America. Its citizens have believed this throughout its history and so has a large part of the world. American exceptionalism derives from many factors, none more convincingly than the country's wealth and a range of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Millions have risked death just to live under the U.S. Constitution, and at least one man was sent to jail for translating a document explaining its tenets.

In 2003, a Vietnamese court convicted Phạm Hồng Sơn, a 35-year-old doctor, of "espionage," and sentenced him to 13 years' imprisonment plus 3 years of house arrest. His offense? In February of 2002, Sơn translated “What Is Democracy?” and emailed it to his friends. He also sent copies to many high-ranking Vietnamese officials, including the Secretary General of the Communist Party. On March 29th, 2002, Sơn was arrested and held incommunicado until his trial on June 18th, 2003, a closed hearing with no lawyers or reporters present. It began at 8AM and was over by 4PM. Now, "espionage" is when someone's hired by a government to obtain secrets from another. Sơn could only be a spy if he took Vietnamese state secrets and gave it to a foreign power. Instead, he copied a U.S. document, readily available online, and sent it to Vietnamese authorities, so he was really “spying” for Vietnam and should be rewarded accordingly. Totalitarianism breeds idiocy and this farce would be funny if it didn't destroy a man's life.

One Vietnamese went to jail for dreaming of the U.S. Constitution, another helped to shred it. John Ashcroft's top deputy and chief architect of the Patriot Act, which became law on October 26, 2001, was Viet Dinh, who came to this country as a ten-year-old in 1978.


I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day--at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

--Walt Whitman

Whitman died in 1892, before the Age of Oil began in earnest. The oil industry started in Western Pennsylvania in 1859, with the first significant oil well named Empire, appropriately enough. Oil became the fuel and engine of the American Empire and Century, and the U.S. was the biggest oil producer in the world until the 1950's, a decade of peak American prosperity and confidence. America's most enduring and quintessential icons, Elvis Presley, Maralyn Monroe and James Dean, all came out of the 1950's. When I arrived in the US in 1975, the most popular television show was Happy Days. About the 50's, its best loved character was a greasy (oily) mechanic and biker named Arthur Fonzarelli, or the Fonz. When times were good, even a high school drop out could give two thumbs up and co-own a diner. Today, Fonzie would be lucky to work as a sales associate at Wal-Mart.

The American Dream was clothed, fed and driven by oil. Oil allowed this country to build an unprecedentedly sprawling, wasteful and alienating environment, where citizens are conditioned to spend hours sitting alone in a steel box and liking it. "It relaxes me," a poet friend told me. The car, not the eagle or cracked bell, is the symbol of American freedom, with its erratic, stop and start speed a metaphor for inevitable progress. That's why NASCAR's popularity has increased, defiantly and foolishly, in spite of high gas price and shortage, and foreign wars to insure more of the same-old-same-old. Dick Cheney, "The American way of life is not negotiable." As the oil age and American dominance peter out, it's Greek tragedy appropriate that we're being steered by a failed oil executive. In 1996, Nadine Gordimer wrote:

[...] what are the factors that affect our daily lives—running across calendar events, over trade winds and continents and national frontiers, affecting have and have-not alike? What influences the late twentieth-century world most widely, you and me, now?

Dip a finger in a dark viscous sub­stance and write on the window of our world. OIL.

There always has been awe of gold, a mythology of gold as the ultimate in material value; gold as the alchemy in which human fate is bound up. At the end of this century it is oil that has that has significance. Oil is ominously bound up with our time; it was the base of the Nobel fortune from which came the Peace Prize...and undreamt-of means of destruction. It is the "why" of many wars of our day [...] Men, women and children die, for oil, without knowing it.

U.S. oil production peaked in 1970. On August 15, 1971, Richard Nixon took the U.S. Dollar off the gold standard, making it fiat money and intrinsically worthless. Still, it remained the world's reserve currency by morphing into the Petrodollar, meaning every country on earth had to buy and sell petroleum with our funny paper, an involuntary arrangement enforced by the U.S. military, with its 761 bases in 151 countries. It's the primary reason why we're in Iraq, not to liberate or chase terrorists but to make sure everyone around that gulf continues to swap oil for greenbacks. If Arabs accepted euros, yens, yuans or rubles for petroleum, the United States would quickly become irrelevant and no one would have to send us real products for our worthless paper. Drunk with hubris, thinking the world had to put up with this protection and monopoly racket forever, the U.S. became indifferent to its stratospheric trade deficits and disappearing industries. Instead of producing actual merchandises, we dumped onto the world our exotic financial instruments and toxic investments, but ponzi scams can't last forever. That's why we're bankrupt, naked and at the mercy of our creditors, friends and foes alike. It's point, game, match, so the lights will be turned off soon. Let's hope we don't go postal before leaving the court.


1 comment:

David-Baptiste Chirot said...

Dear Linh Dinh
Thank you so deeply much for this poem-reportage!

This piece moved me so profoundly--
for it is the kind of work i aspire to do also--and work at--the use of memories, facts of hsitory, quotes from poetry and documents, literary examples--and the interelationships of all of these--
through time and across spaces
and in an individual and at the global levels as well as local--

the wanting to share the vision by the poet whitman--and also the vietnamese poet--
and what happens to both--

this is a brilliantly written piece--
thank you so much--david-bc