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Empire in Funkville

By Linh Dinh

empire_well_560pxl.jpg

“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.
2

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.

Comments (6)

  • On September 29, 2008 at 10:02 pm Trinity wrote:

    Those American poets who live their entire lives connected to the blogosphere are unaware that their reality is not in fact real, nor that there is a poet rebellion by the few “free” poets in the blogosphere. From time to time, poets are freed from the blogosphere, a risky and complex operation. There is a legend or prophecy amongst poets (which most believe but the few “free” poets ridicule) that they are “The One,” a poet who, when connected to the blogosphere, can override its simulated rules, and perceive and manipulate its code directly. Within the simulated reality of the blogosphere, this poet will finally be discovered, sell millions of books, become wealthy, famous, worshipped as a celebrity, and leave a vast body of work as a legacy for the human race. Most American poets believe he or she is “The One.”
    One poet who believes he is “The One” goes to meet the Oracle, a poet who has the power of foresight within the simulated poetry world. She gives him a slice of American cheese — government cheese that she gets each month along with her welfare check. As he nibbles on the thick, waxy, tasteless cheese, she tells him that he has the “gift,” but he appears to be waiting for something — “Your next life, maybe. Who knows?”
    He washes down the last bite of cheese with a glass of Triple Awesome Grape flavored Koolaid. A phone is ringing in a telephone booth.
    He goes home and blogs about it.

  • On September 30, 2008 at 12:15 pm Mark Wallace wrote:

    Linh, this is a brilliant piece of writing that makes me envious. My only concerns are the closing doomsday rhetoric and a purposefully rhetorical yet nonetheless undifferentiated “we” at the close. Apocalyptic rhetoric is not only a common fear-inducing strategy in U.S life and politics (and perhaps elsewhere too I’m sure) but also one currently being used by Bush and Wall Street. I think there may be value in being skeptical of that kind of rhetoric here, since it breeds the kind of fear that often becomes a conservative force. I’m not suggesting that the financial crises of the U.S. in recent years and the last few days aren’t having real effects on people, especially those more extended into the illusions of credit. But any “we” as such is not being hurt in any general way, and the specific effects here still remain at least partly to be seen. No doubt you’re right that we’re watching a ponzi scheme collapse, but let;s not be too quick to believe with Bush that the effects will be “lasting and painful for all of us.” Still, your lead up to the conclusion is fantastic–your way of bringing together different discourses and histories is often stunning.

  • On September 30, 2008 at 1:08 pm Linh Dinh wrote:

    Hi Mark,
    I’ve been watching our tanking economy for several years now, incorporating everything I’ve learnt into a class called State of the Union, which since 2005 I’ve taught at Naropa (twice), U. Penn and University of Montana. I knew this house of cards would come tumbling down, even as Bush was repeating his mantra that the economy was strong. The just defeated bailout would not have solved anything but keep the Dow up for another week or two, with a much more severe crisis to follow. In any case, I’m convinced that “we” are entering a much bleaker and much more humbling phase of our history. The title of my last book, Jam Alerts (2007), was literal. Ron Silliman went to the book launch and wrote this the next day:
    “Dinh’s tale is about our future, but he’s not a science fiction writer – at least not yet – so he tells it through our present. I’ve compared him in the past, indeed even on the blurb on the back cover of this book, with William Burroughs, another writer operating out of very similar terms & compulsions. In both cases, the tale is bleak, dystopic. What happens at the end of empire is not pretty, it’s not a matter of genteel decay, but rather ongoing denial that becomes increasingly shrill & delusional. With the potential for horrific violence always simmering just below the surface. Dinh’s tradition, to call it that, includes the likes of Bosch, Brueghel, Blake & Lautréamont.”
    So no, I’m not going along with Bush but calling him out.

  • On October 1, 2008 at 12:30 am nf wrote:

    Uh, who DIDN’T know this house of cards was coming down? The New York freakin’ Times predicted it nine years ago. Did not take a weatherman.

  • On October 1, 2008 at 4:19 am Linh Dinh wrote:

    Washington Irving, writing about the Mississipi Bubble:
    In the course of a voyage from England, I once fell in with a convoy of merchant ships, bound for the West Indies. The weather was uncommonly bland; and the ships vied with each other in spreading sail to catch a light, favoring breeze, until their hulls were almost hidden beneath a cloud of canvas. The breeze went down with the sun, and his last yellow rays shone upon a thousand sails, idly flapping against the masts.
    I exulted in the beauty of the scene, and augured a prosperous voyage; but the veteran master of the ship shook his head, and pronounced this halcyon calm a “weather-breeder.” And so it proved. A storm burst forth in the night; the sea roared and raged; and when the day broke I beheld the late gallant convoy scattered in every direction; some dismasted, others scudding under bare poles, and many firing signals of distress.
    I have since been occasionally reminded of this scene, by those calm sunny seasons in the commercial world, which are known by the name of “times of unexampled prosperity.” They are the sure weather-breeders of traffic. Every now and then the world is visited by one of these delusive seasons, when “the credit system” as it is called, expands to full luxuriance; everybody trusts everybody; a bad debt is a thing unheard of; the broad way to certain and sudden wealth lies plain and open; and men are tempted to dash forward boldly, from the facility of borrowing.
    Promissory notes, interchanged between scheming individuals, are liberally discounted at the banks, which become so many mints to coin words into cash; and as the supply of words is inexhaustible, it may readily be supposed what a vast amount of promissory capital is soon in circulation. Every one now talks in thousands; nothing is heard but gigantic operations in trade; great purchases and sales of real property, and immense sums made at every transfer. All, to be sure, as yet exists in promise; but the believer in promises calculates the aggregate as solid capital, and falls back in amazement at the amount of public wealth, the “unexampled state of public prosperity!”
    Now is the time for speculative and dreaming or designing men. They relate their dreams and projects to the ignorant and credulous, dazzle them with golden visions, and set them maddening after shadows. The example of one stimulates another; speculation rises on speculation; bubble rises on bubble; every one helps with his breath to swell the windy superstructure, and admires and wonders at the magnitude of the inflation he has contributed to produce.
    Speculation is the romance of trade, and casts contempt upon all its sober realities. It renders the stock-jobber a magician, and the exchange a region of enchantment. It elevates the merchant into a kind of knight-errant, or rather a commercial Quixote. The slow but sure gains of snug percentage become despicable in his eyes: “no operation” is thought worthy of attention that does not double or treble the investment. As he sits musing over his ledger, with pen behind his ear, he is like La Mancha’s hero in his study, dreaming over his books of chivalry. His dusty counting house fades before his eyes, or changes into a Spanish mine; he gropes after diamonds, or dives after pearls. The subterranean garden of Aladdin is nothing to the realms of wealth that break upon his imagination.
    Could this delusion always last, the life of a merchant would indeed be a golden dream; but it is as short as it is brilliant. Let but a doubt enter, and the “season of unexampled prosperity” is at an end. The coinage of words is suddenly curtailed; the promissory capital begins to vanish into smoke; a panic succeeds, and the whole superstructure, built upon credit, and reared by speculation, crumbles to the ground, leaving scarce a wreck behind:

    “It is such stuff as dreams are made of.”

    When a man of business therefore, hears on every side rumors of fortunes suddenly acquired; when he finds banks liberal, and brokers busy; when he sees adventurers flush of paper capital, and full of scheme and enterprise; when he perceives a greater disposition to buy than to sell; when trade overflows its accustomed channels, and deluges the country; when he hears of new regions of commercial adventure; of distant marts and distant mines, swallowing merchandise and disgorging gold; when he finds joint stock companies of all kinds forming; railroads, canals, and locomotive engines, springing up on every side; when idlers suddenly become men of business, and dash into the game of commerce as they would into the hazards of the faro-table; when he beholds the streets glittering with new equipages, palaces conjured up by the magic of speculation, tradesmen flushed with sudden success, and vying with each other in ostentatious expense; in a word, when he hears the whole community joining in the theme of “unexampled prosperity,” let him look upon the whole as a “weather-breeder,” and prepare for the impending storm.
    [...]

  • On October 6, 2008 at 7:20 am Gary Sullivan wrote:

    This really is a brilliant piece of writing.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, September 29th, 2008 by Linh Dinh.