Poet's Sampler: Tan Lin
Introduced by Charles Bernstein
April 1, 1999
Apr 1, 1999
8 Min read time
Tan Lin's new work sparkles with unoriginality and falsification. He wants to make good on his sense of language as "forever temporal, subject to change, cancellation, decay," of language's harrowing, or is it hallowing, "failure to specify anything in the here and now." Lin's first book, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe, published by Sun & Moon in 1996, made apparent the acuity of his formal imagination. That book can be read as a brilliant synthesis of the poetic innovations of the two decades that preceded it. In his new work, Lin is trying to critique a number of the underlying assumptions of "innovative" poetry, exploring ways to make poetry more readable and, as he puts it, more relaxing. While there is some irony in his notion of using ambient textuality to induce a meditative space for poetry, Lin's "Ambient Stylistics" (which takes the form of an interview) and the companion set of ongoing, apparently endless, couplets called "Box," suggest a fresh, nonpressured modality for reading. These are not meditative poems but temporal processes cast into words: permeable, open, meandering. "Yes I am lying to you," says Lin. No he is not lying to you. Breathe deeply as you read.
from Ambient Stylistics
So. On the 10th of March I board a plane into Seattle, rent a white Honda Acura and drive 87 miles to Concrete, WA, which is on the edge of the park and where the Bear Park Motel is located. When I arrive, my aunt shows me to Room 17, and whenever I have gone to the The Bear Park in the intervening years I stay in Room 17, just as Salvador Dali when he came to New York always stayed at the St. Regis and always in Room 1628. Although I don't remember any, there is as I gather from the photographs an occasional painting in the rooms, and once when I first thought about visiting, when I was in high school, I remember thinking about a photograph of a door that had been kicked in. After arriving, my aunt proudly tells me that the Bear Park is one of the only motels in America where there are no phones in any of the rooms. I believe this says something about the clientele, about the kinds of people who have and have not stayed at the Bear Park Motel on the western edge of North Cascades National Park, the people who have died and not died there, had sex and not had sex, lied and not lied there way out of that godforsaken landscape or one of those rooms. I have often thought of the motel and have asked my aunt many times if she had ever discovered a corpse in one of the rooms and she said no, never. On my second and last night at the Bear Park I asked my aunt if she liked running the motel. She said she did but she added that the worst thing about running a motel was never being able to take a vacation. And drunks bang on the office door, which is the door to their living room, and this wakes her and her uncle up in the middle of the night. People come to cheat in their motel. I have taken that trip to Glacier and the Bear Park Motel many times. I know the head is made for places like the Bear Park Motel where a half-Chinese woman runs a motel filled with language and its lies.
When I was in graduate school getting a Ph.D in 1983 and writing poetry on the side I met a woman who spoke 8 languages-Chinese (mandarin and cantonese and an amoy dialect known as xiamen), German, French, Vietnamese, and English, almost all of them fluently except for German, which she learned in school I think. She was born in Saigon, was raised in Paris and told me she had never ridden in public transportation before NYC because she had spent her childhood in the back seat of a limousine and whenever I think of her I think of her in the back seat of a limousine and basically just living there and reading her favorite books there (she was born a reader just as all avid readers are born not made), and being taken to restaurants, and waiting for her father to put her in the car so she could go to school. I believe she told me her father was in business and that her mother was capable of extreme cruelty. She was very pretty for her age and very slight, almost trop raffiné, and her name was G________, but she had a laugh that was just loud enough, and she was very fond of smiling and not quite smiling at the same time. Her eyes were brown with the color of scuffed shoe polish. From the moment I met her I believed she was an exquisite liar. One night I asked her if she lied in one language better than another because I knew she loved questions like that (all questions for her resembled lies), and she said she knew she could lie best in English, because it was not her favorite language and was most free in it but when she was in bed with someone she preferred to make the sounds of endearment and physical longing in Chinese. One hot very early July morning, my father who was visiting Brooke Alexander, a gallery owner who deals a lot of print works by contemporary artists in NY, walked up the five flights of stairs in my walkup apartment on 125th St. in Spanish Harlem, and met her by accident (she was leaving). I introduced them, asked them to say a few words of Chinese to each other because at the time I was not sure how well she spoke Chinese, and they exchanged a few words in mandarin which I did not understand because I do not speak or understand Chinese except certain names of food. I have always told my friends that I can speak Chinese but only in a restaurant.
Years afterwards when my father had decided to buy another house and was living in Santa Barbara and I had gone to visit him during my summer off, my father asked what happened to her, said she was very well brought up, and that she spoke a very beautiful mandarin. I believe that she reminded my father of my mother though I realize this only now as I am writing it.
One night I remember she had told me she was a virgin. I knew she was not really lying because she was lying to me in my favorite language, which is English because it is the only one that I really possess as a language to imagine things in, and because I have always thought that she is probably one of those persons that can only lie well over the phone. I continue to believe to this day that she was a terrible liar in person, although I am probably lying to myself, and of course this is the main reason I fell in love with her after we had ended things, and this is the main reason I still, years later, remember her voice when I am on the telephone and am lonely and am waiting for someone on the other end of the telephone to tell me they love me. One can wait for years to hear a beautiful lie like that. Nearly ten years later I ran into a friend of hers on the Columbia campus near the statue of Rodin's The Thinker. I had gone back (I love the campus and steps where the students sit out on a warm day) to see a professor of mine, George Stade, who wrote a novel called Confessions of a Lady Killer and is my one of favorite professors because he of all my professors, he always acted glad to see me (and I believe he genuinely was) when I came in to talk with him about orals exams, or dissertation chapters or whatever. Anyway, Christina and I talked for a long time. Eventually the subject of G________ came up and she told me that G________ had finished her thesis on the Princesse de Cleves, had married a Swiss banker, and was living in Geneva. Today I feel a strong urge to know what country her parents live in, if they are even alive, and I have an irrevocable desire to meet them, not to talk to them, just to be introduced to them, to go through the mechanical social pleasantries with them. Sometimes there are times when I wish G________ had lied that night when she told me she was a virgin. Without lies, the brain would be more empty than a midtown office building. Without lies, the emotions would have nothing to live for except themselves and no emotion should have to live with itself for very long. Lies are the ways the mind has of accepting our own emotions. None of the lies we tell is real except to the person we tell that lie to. It never really matters if one is telling the truth. It only matters if one cares enough not to tell a lie to someone. There is nothing so sad as a family without liars. My father died in 1989 of a heart attack (he was the best liar in our family) and of course there were things that I never said to him. Everybody needs to lie to someone. As I was saying, the rooms at the Big Bear Park rent for $37 a night.
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April 01, 1999
8 Min read time