27 April 2006
A House with no Doors: Linh Dinh’s Poetics of Discomfort
In an autobiographical essay about a trip to his birth country of Vietnam, the poet Linh
Dinh writes of an encounter with a cab driver in Ho Chi Min City. The driver crept
alongside Dinh, who was traveling on foot, and asked him over and over, ―Where are you
from?‖ This question, Dinh writes, ―is my least favorite question, anywhere. I didn‘t answer
him‖ (―Eight Postcards‖, par. 6). His difficulty answering this seemingly simple question is
significant when one considers that for most of his life, Linh Dinh has existed on the edges
of Vietnamese and American culture, familiar with both and yet fully identifying with
neither. His own history is full of transitions between distant cultures. Dinh was born in
Saigon, two years before America began its involvement in the Vietnamese Civil War, and
lived there until the age of 11, when Saigon fell and his family moved to the United States.
He lived in America for the next 25 years. In 1999, he moved back to Vietnam for a short
time, where he met his wife. He currently lives in Italy.
Because Linh Dinh does not identify as being from any particular country, he has found
himself on the margins of many different societies. His estrangement from the dominant
culture of both America and Vietnam stems from an unwillingness to center himself within
the worldview of any one culture. In his writing, Dinh is able to transfer this alienation onto
his readers, forcing us to confront the contradictions that become apparent when one
cannot reference the absolute standards of any one culture. The poems of Dinh‘s collection,
All Around What Empties Out, constantly point out the inconsistencies, absurdities, and
constrictions of American society to challenge the very idea of a stable, cultural home in
which to find comfort and define values and norms.
Throughout his life, Dinh has had trouble placing himself comfortably within the beliefs
and cultural expectations of any one nation. Molly Russakoff, a poet friend of Dinh‘s from
Philedelphia, recalls a story:
Even as Linh became more respected in the arts community, he grew more disaffected. It
became gradually apparent to him that the source of this discomfort was a matter of race and
racism. He felt alienated from both the predominantly white arts community and the
immigrant Vietnamese community. He was noticeably different than the other immigrants…
The proprietor of the Vietnamese pharmacy where he bought a certain salve for his hands
called him ‗The Professor‘, because his intellect was so apparent. (Russakoff, sec. 8)
Dinh‘s Vietnamese childhood and early immigration to the US made him unable to
comfortably fit within the largely white, American-born Philadelphia arts community, while
his very participation in that intellectual community separated him from many of his fellow
immigrants. Unable to fully identify or rest within either group, Dinh found himself outside
of any comfortable home or set of values with which to define himself. It is this sense of
alienation from any mainstream society that has given Dinh the ability to question and
rupture the complacencies of cultural conventions, particularly those of America.
Linh Dinh often told the story of his stop-over in China while waiting to immigrate to
the United States. Russakoff recalls that upon arriving in China Dinh felt ―an awful self-
consciousness of being dressed wrong, in fashions half learned from American soldiers,
platform shoes with pants too short. It was obvious to him that he and the people he
traveled with were suddenly all wrong. It was embarrassing and infuriating‖ (sec. 8). In his
writing, Dinh translates the experience of these exact feelings to his readers. Russakoff goes
on to point out that in the poetry of Linh Dinh, ―People are either ridiculous and ill-fitting
or they are not worth mentioning at all. Absurdities exist everywhere‖ (sec. 8). Through
transgression of the cultural boundaries between public and private and juxtaposition of
violence with humor and elegance, Dinh recreates his feelings of displacement and alienation
in his readers. While reading his poems, we suddenly become very aware, self-conscious
even, of the things that our culture ignores and pushes to the margins.
The poem ―Traditional Vietnamese Architecture‖ challenges the idea of a stable,
comfortable home by exploring the structural framework and architecture that surrounds
such a place in his experience. In this poem, Dinh describes the home as, ―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‖ (All
Around 4). Dinh puts both himself and the reader in the position of an unsanctioned
trespasser into the home, having to use force and enter through unexpected openings in
order to gain access to a place where he/we do(es) not belong. Dinh uses this exact
technique throughout the book, shattering the expectations of his reader in order to gain
access to their comfort zones and preconceived assumptions. The poem‘s descriptions place
us in direct contact with the house that is described; we find ourselves shattering window
panes and entering forbidden spaces with the narrator. As we read, we participate in Dinh‘s
transgression of boundaries.
Once we gain access to the house, we find that it is not actually a well-ordered and
normal place but rather a disorienting funhouse, full of contradictions. We discover
―Ceilings are painted with upside-down bookcases, tables, beds and sleeping animals, etc, to
resemble floors. Floors are fitted with bare light bulbs‖ (All Around 4). Not only are the
rooms backwards, but we find the one thing that is usually hidden in a typical home to be
the centerpiece of this house: ―On a pedestal in the center of the room is a symbolic toilet,
slightly bigger than standard size and sculpted from papier-mâché‖ (4). Just out of our reach,
we find a fragmented assemblage of the past: ―an array of ‗lost‘ items: nail clippings from
childhood, love letters, first kisses…‖ (4). And to top it all off, when we finally catch a
glimpse of ourselves, we see that we, too, have lost control and direction. ―At the end of a
long, steeply sloping corridor‖ we catch our image in a mirror and see ourselves ―staggering
forward, gaining momentum with each step‖ (4).
Here, Dinh exposes that once we gain access to the carefully constructed ideal of cultural
or societal ‗home‘, we will find that it is full of absurdities and contradictions. The very
things that usually remain hidden are ridiculously exposed. The things we secretly long for
are out of reach and we are left to watch ourselves stumble forward without any sense of
constraint or propriety. The profound discomfort of this realization and the sense of
alienation that comes with the knowledge that Home may not exist – at least not as simply as
we had thought – is exactly what Dinh has experienced throughout his own life and what he
intends to recreate for his readers.
One of the ways that Dinh is able to create such feelings is by pushing on the boundaries
that exist between public and private in American society, forcing us to confront things that
are often unsaid in public and otherwise left out of mainstream culture. From his experience
of living in both cultures, Dinh is extremely aware of the boundaries and comfort levels set
by American society and how these differ from those of Vietnamese society. For example, in
his poem, ―Conversion Table‖ he writes, ―They like to kiss outside and piss inside./We like
to kiss inside and piss outside‖ (All Around 44). This comparison forces the reader to
imagine what would happen if someone from Vietnam were to come to America and piss
outside, or if someone from America were to go to Vietnam and look for a place to piss
inside. Most Americans would feel extreme discomfort at the thought of pissing outside,
despite the fact that in another place it is completely acceptable. Seeing the juxtaposition of
such opposite cultural norms forces us to consider how the norms of our own culture are
constructed and how our own comfort levels are in turn shaped by these constructs.
In the essay ―Eight Postcards from Vietnam‖ Dinh writes:
An American city does not yield its secrets as willingly as a Vietnamese one. What happens
in public are mere spectacles, with private lives drawn out behind the curtains. In Vietnam,
however, the distinctions between private and public spaces, inside and outside, are fudged.
You can observe the activities inside a house by simply walking past it. The doors and
windows are wide open….But that doesn‘t mean that [the Vietnamese are necessarily] seeing
much, because, as a friend of mine said, ―We‘ve lived here all our lives, so none of this jazz
fazes us, but you, coming at the outside, are gawking at everything.‖ (―Eight Postcards‖, sec.
Dinh is aware that the average American reader is startled by anything staged in public that is
usually relegated to the private realm. And, more importantly, he realizes that we will ―gawk‖
at such things. Americans are curious about the so-called ―forbidden‖ and want to see it,
even when we have the sense that it is none of our business. Dinh exploits this fascination
throughout his book. He knows that we will look at the exposed private, even as we may be
disgusted or disturbed by it.
The most obvious example of this is the graphic on the cover of the book – a toilet seat
and the white tile of a public restroom, along with the title ―All Around What Empties Out‖.
Using the toilet is one of the most private behaviors in American society, so much so that
bodily functions are often completely excluded from and denied any access to the public
realm. Yet here, Dinh covers his book with images related to using the bathroom, associating
his work with shit – the very thing that our society is most embarrassed about, perhaps
because it is the one thing that we cannot deny producing. Like the giant toilet seat that
adorns the cover, Dinh‘s poems seek to expose the unattractive and embarrassing aspects of
society that so often get flushed away or reduced to the margins.
The poem, ―Academy of Fine Arts‖ further explores our culture‘s embarrassment with
personal waste and the body parts that produce it:
Seeing a dog walking around with its tail upturned, its asshole exposed, I feel infinitely
superior. I am a man, after all, and do not walk around with my asshole exposed. Even with
my pants down, my asshole would not be exposed.
Once I saw a young mother blow hot air rhythmically into her infant son‘s asshole hoping to
cure him of something. (All Around 39)
Dinh pokes fun at the false superiority of humans who would deny the existence of their
own assholes. American cultural norms bar any decent citizen from exposing his or her
asshole in public; it is as if by ignoring the asshole, we can disassociate ourselves with all that
is impure or unattractive. Yet, in this poem we encounter the Vietnamese superstition that
hot air rhythmically blown into the asshole might cure disease. The American reader
encounters not only a poem which exposes assholes by talking about them in a work of
literature, but also a foreign culture in which it is accepted to actually expose the asshole and
blow into it in a place where someone else might witness the act. A mainstream American
who reads this poem and feels any sense of superiority over the animal or the Vietnamese
son bent over his mother‘s knee must recognize that the only thing keeping such exposure
from happening in America is cultural norms. Our comfort zones and the boundaries that
preserve them are mere cultural constructs; we cannot deny that we have assholes.
In the poem, ―Earth Cafeteria‖ Dinh again makes the mainstream American reader feel
discomfort by introducing customs – in this case food – from Vietnamese culture that by
our cultural standards might seem unacceptable. He first poses the relativity of eating
customs across cultures, writing, ―Rice people vs. bread people./White bread vs. wheat
bread./White rice vs. brown rice‖ (All Around 26) and then by quoting Lin Yutang, ―What is
patriotism but love of the foods one had as a child?‖ (26). Yet this relativity becomes hard
for the American reader to accept when tripe, one of the main ingredients of Vietnam‘s most
popular dish, comes up against our standards of cleanliness and health. He quotes Bahktin,
―It was believed that after cleaning, tripe still contained ten percent excrement which was
therefore eaten with the rest of the meal‖ (26). As the poem progresses, the food images
continue to disturb and disgust, yet they focus on non-culturally specific foods: ―Chew
bones, suck fat,/bite heads off, gnaw on a broken wing‖ (26) and end with a disturbing twist
to a distinctly American meal: ―Toothless man sucking/a pureed porterhouse steak/with
straw‖ (27). Dinh challenges the reader to consider exactly what it is that makes certain
foods appear disgusting. Is appetite and revulsion simply a question of cultural norms and
patriotism, of ―Rice people vs. bread people‖? By presenting the image of pureed steak
sucked through a straw, an image strikingly similar to the idea of a meat product containing
10 percent waste, Dinh points out that American culture has just as much potential to
For many Americans, the suggestion that a toothless man eating pureed steak through a
straw could even exist in our society is unsettling. The image suggests someone left to age
and decay, someone forgotten and pushed aside by society. In much the same way, ―The
Dead‖ seeks to surface those bits of America that have been pushed aside and excluded by
cultural ideals and standards of cleanliness and decency. Dinh tells us, ―The old lady who
scrounged potted meat/From foreign men lying in a mortar pit/Now sells gold jewelry in
Santa Barbara‖ (All Around 8). In this poem, Dinh tears off the façade of comfortable and
pristine American culture, exposing that the woman who sells gold jewelry once lived a life
scrounging meat. A history is exposed that includes ―foreign men lying in a mortar pit‖ and
the present becomes full of ghosts, a sort of haunting by the violence of another country and
time. In this poem, the living dead, immigrants who are decaying with age and wasting away
with their own painful memories, are shown to populate the world among the living, even as
the living will deny their existence and ―dress them in native costumes‖ (8). This poem
suggests a blemished history that is ignored and denied by mainstream America, even as its
remains live among our culture.
Dinh realizes that in order for a society to construct an acceptably clean and comfortable
notion of home, the unpleasant aspects of that home must be ignored. The standards and
norms based on such an ideal will deny the decay of the body, just as bodily functions and
certain body parts, like assholes, are ignored. Yet, the violence Dinh has experienced
throughout his life, both as a child growing up during the Vietnam War, and as an adult on
the streets in Philadelphia, makes it impossible for him to ignore such physical realities. He
writes, ―I see violence as a common misfortune and, by extension, fate. It‘s what awaits each
one of us just around the corner. One cannot think seriously about life without
contemplating the destruction of the body‖ (Sherlock, sec. 4). One of the major ways he
creates discomfort in his readers and makes them feel alienated from the societal norms they
once took for granted is by mixing violence with the humorous, the elegant, and the
everyday. In Dinh‘s poetry, violence is not contained within movie screens or news flashes,
as many Americans might like to believe. It permeates all facets of American society.
The poem ―The Most Beautiful Word‖ is shocking in its graceful – even beautiful, as the
title suggests – descriptions of a battle scene. Dinh starts, ―I think ‗vesicle‘ is the most
beautiful word in the English language. He was lying face down, his shirt burnt off, back
steaming. I myself was bleeding. There was a harvest of vesicles on his back‖ (All Around
17). In using such delicate, beautiful language to describe such a horrific scene, Dinh is
commenting on the fact that even violence and disgust can be found in the seemingly poetic.
He continues, ―A collapsed face stared up. There was a pink spray in the air, then a brief
rainbow. The mandible was stitched with blue threads to the soul. I extracted a tooth from
the tongue. He had swallowed the rest‖ (17). Gruesome details are told with seductive words
such as ―vesicle‖ and charming phrases such as ―brief rainbow‖ are suddenly imbued with
violent, sinister connotations. Readers are left to mistrust the language they use to
communicate every day, suddenly exposed to its potential for such contradictions and
Just as language is able to convey numerous and contradictory nuances and contexts, the
experience of living in an American city offers the same disturbing range of experiences. The
seemingly violent and seemingly innocent exist side by side. The poem ―WHOAAA!‖
illustrates this, as Dinh recreates a sort of exaggerated bus tour through the city. He writes,
―What communal happiness! What blessings!/Everyone going the same way!/Whoaaa get
away from me!!!‖ (All Around 21). Here, the extreme pleasure at seeing a well-ordered city,
everyone in his/her proper place moving along towards some ―communal happiness‖ is
displaced by a sense of shock and aversion when someone unexpectedly comes too close or
crosses over expected boundaries: ―Whoaaa get away from me!!!‖. We see how the steady
movement of ―everyone moving the same way‖ is actually held in place by a fear of others
crossing over those boundaries and an unwillingness to do so ourselves.
As the poem progresses, we see with ―fumbling speed‖ various overstated exclamations
of emotion. The boundaries of propriety are crossed, and the world seems to become
extraordinarily loud with overstated and aggressive stimulation:
Boo hoo hoo! Boo hoo hoo!
I think we must kill ourselves!!!
And now, for our first toothpick!
Can I have this? Waaaa!!!!!
Is it mine? Ha ha ha!!! For real?
For our first cornflake! For our first coffin!!!
Custom-made, no ordinary pine, a fine wood…
With what anguish must we resolve each thing?
With what rage? With what gratitude? (21)
The world is violent in its onslaught of exclamations and intense emotion. Cornflakes and
coffins alike become imbued with intensity, a sense that all things contain the hinting of both
great pleasure and great destruction. The world necessitates a reaction of mixed rage and
gratitude. We can neither allow it to completely overtake us, nor can we completely push it
away. In such a state, comfort is not an option. The equalizing force of cultural standards
and norms are unable to contain such intensity; any stable notion of a secure home becomes
With our seemingly innocent society suddenly turned violent and overwhelming in the
different images and emotions that it normally seeks to contain, the reader is left feeling out
of place and uncomfortable in a world that once seemed like home. The poem ―Homilies‖
describes a man living on a mine field. Dinh writes, ―Knew something was up when the
government gave me this plot of land for free. Can‘t walk three steps without stepping on
one. Can‘t have any children or pets. Can‘t get too trashed in the evening. If a man can‘t
walk on the ground, where can he walk?‖ (All Around 51) Once the reader discovers the
land mines of his/her own culture – it‘s potential for violence and disgust – each step seems
risky and rife with latent disaster. Responsibility for innocent children and pets is suddenly a
burden; the lack of control that comes with intoxication is frightening. In the world written
by Dinh, we must always be on guard. If a man cannot exist comfortably in his own home,
cannot walk safely in his own backyard, then where can he live?
Left with this sense of disorientation and mistrust of the values and standards of a
culture that once felt stable and secure, the reader is left to reconstruct a new space to walk
in, a new kind of home. Recall the inverted house described by Dinh in ―Traditional
Vietnamese Architecture‖: ―Ceilings are painted with upside-down bookcases, tables, beds
and sleeping animals, etc, to resemble floors. Floors are fitted with bare light bulbs‖ (All
Around, 4). When the ground is ridden with mines, perhaps there is no other choice than to
walk along the ceiling. This would require an overturning of all assumptions and a
willingness to live other than by expected societal norms. Dinh‘s alternate world shatters the
rational constructs of society, showing us a ‗home‘ that is not comfortable, not safe, but
rather one that is unrestricted and unsettling, always changing and pushing us to question
our own context and surroundings.
Despite Dinh‘s attention to displacing and alienating his readers through a crossing of
accepted boundaries and an exposing of violence among the seemingly innocent, he sees
himself as contributing to a stronger, and more sensible, America. In an interview he writes,
―As American poets living through this period, I think each of us should feel personally
challenged to help restore dignity and sanity to our national character‖ (―Linh Dinh‖, sec. 9).
For Dinh, a more sane and dignified America is one in which the assumptions that make up
our worldview and the boundaries that contain our comfort zones can be questioned. By
exposing us to the discomforts that are usually excluded or covered up by society and
alienating us from our sense of home, Dinh is actually giving us the distance with which to
evaluate our country‘s standards and actions.
Dinh‘s poetic tactics of violence and disgust are not meant to attack the reader, but
rather to work in our benefit. In an interview, he tells Frank Sherlock, ―I have always written
for and about the unchosen, people whose lives cannot be encapsulated by national or
corporate propaganda. Most of us fit into this category. The more widespread and insistent
the propaganda, the more displaced and schizophrenic we feel‖ (Sherlock, sec. 4). Dinh
means to alienate us from a home that is constructed by propaganda, and a complacency that
actually inhibits us from expanding into new territories - as terrifying as they might be – to
form new ideas about the world. By exposing the violence, the pain, the discomfort and the
absurdities inherent in our culture—and all cultures—Dinh urges us to include these feelings
in our experience of the world rather than deny their existence. It is this constant stretching
of human emotion that allows for the true potential of human culture. He writes, ―Every
man has a right to achieve his own madness. Anything short of that would be a failure of the
human imagination” (Malloy, par. 7). In the kind of world created by the poems of Linh
Dinh, nobody is offered the comfort and safety of home, nobody is excluded, and everyone
is free to explore the possibilities of his or her own madness.
Dinh, Linh. All Around What Empties Out. Kan‘ohe, Hawaii: Tin Fish Press, 2003.
---. ―Eight Postcards from Vietnam.‖ The Literary Review. 2001. April 17, 2006
---, trans. Three Vietnamese Poets. Kan‘ohe, Hawaii: Tin Fish Press, 2001.
―Linh Dinh.‖ Here Comes Everybody: Writers on Writing. 2004. e Blogger. April
17, 2006 <herecomeseverybody.blogspot.com/2004/12/linh-dinh-is-author-of-two-
Malloy, Robert. ―He Went Thataway.‖ Philadelphia Citypaper.net. 2001. April 21,
Russakoff, Molly. ―Philly Sound Feature, issue#2: Linh Dinh.‖ PhillySound: New
Poetry. 2002. sec 8. e Blogger. April 21,
2006<http://www.phillysound.blogspot.com/2003_12_ 01_ phillysound_
Sherlock, Frank. ―Philly Sound Feature, issue #2: Linh Dinh.‖ PhillySound: New Poetry.
2002. sec 4. e Blogger. April 21, 2006 <http://www.phillysound.blogspot.com/2003