A variation on Jordan's criterion of the poem "doing something": as I mentioned in conversation with various parties a week or so ago, I ask minimally of a poem that it make something happen physically (in the reader, at the least). This could mean a laugh, a shudder, tears, nausea ... anything measurable as bodily affect. The extreme manifestation of this would be Dickinson's top-of-the-head-being-taken-off phenomenon. Some perfectly admirable poems, of course, merely pry at the cranial hinges a bit. Or cause a rash, or induce excessive salivation.
I guess a further extreme yet would be a poem that, for example, ended the war in Iraq. Or started a whole new war. Sad that the latter is easier to imagine.
A book very much involved with these concerns of the physical is Linh Dinh's newest, Borderless Bodies, from Factory School's Heretical Texts series. This is probably Dinh's dominant theme, and has been in most of the work I've seen from him. Here as in his previous two collections of poetry, All Around What Empties Out (Tinfish) and American Tatts (Chax Press, 2005), his work is continually centered on bodily surfaces and interiors, and on the points where those divisions meld into one another, either through the natural contours of physiology, or through the violent interventions of external forces such as rape and shrapnel. Even the titles give witness to this concern (e.g., "all around what empties out" is a circumlocution/translation of perineum).
As in his previous work, and perhaps even to a greater extent, Dinh's aesthetic in Bodies is resolutely anti-poetic, structured around a general inelegance that takes on the forcefulness of commands shouted in a battle, or the introspective intimacy of a to-do list muttered to oneself from memory. Here is "Holes":
Holes all over the damn body!
Not all holes are equally precious.
Six or seven holes? It depends
On what you consider a hole?
It needn't be darkened.
It can be lit from inside,
A mess of marmalade
Or an ammunition dump,
Sandbagged and barbwired.
Such a nice, fresh hole,
Such a rosy, tender hole,
Such an eloquent hole.
I peeped at that sad hole
Through the sorry peep hole.
Open it wide, but not too wide,
Let's air out this generic hole.
The uncomfortableness of this writing reminds me of certain Cindy Sherman photographs, with their garish, contaminated surfaces. Maybe "antipoetic" is a lazy way of putting it; Dinh's poetic is in fact very scrupulously shaped. The shapes it traces, however, are ones that resist being marshalled into any architecture of mastery as classically understood. Each line seems to emerge not as a calculated facet of a hierarchical verse structure, but as an utterance in a potentially unlimited (borderless) series, much like a Beckett monologue. A stanza from "One Sentence Poems" sums up the effect: "Reading this sentence, / He forgets the previous, / Because his mind can only / Contain one relatively / Short sentence."
In keeping with this amnesiac orientation toward language, Dinh almost always resists graceful closes in favor of conspicuously abrupt cessations. Sometimes this approach appears to inform and be informed by the use (or at least the idea of the use) of search engines as a compositional tool, as in "Googable" ("penis enhancement pumps discounted / hidden radio device Dubya Bush / how many rats were there on the Mayflower?") or "Sliding Semiotics":
Oriental Delice 24 hrs. a day.
Spider Veins Specialist.
We swap books.
Lessons in cemetery lettering.
Se Habla Espanol.
Whether or not these lines are derived from Google searches or merely imitate their syntactical makeup, Dinh clearly recognizes in those abject, fragmented cadences a potent analog to the increasingly abjected position of "voice" in contemporary culture, as well as the "eloquent holes" from which such voices may be imagined to emanate.
I try to resist rankings of this sort as much as I can, but if it is possible to identify the top five or ten most original and affecting poets writing today, Dinh would certainly be on my "list," as I know he is on many others'.