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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Postcard from the End of America: Washington D.C.

As published at OpEd News, CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House, Global Research, Intrepid Report and, 3/11/15:

For nearly four years, I lived just 20 miles from Washington, in Annandale, VA, and I worked in D.C. for 9 months. From my home in Philadelphia, I’ve also gone down to Washington at least a hundred times, so this metropolis should not be alien to me, and yet no American city is more off putting, more unwelcome, more impenetrable, and this, in spite of its obvious physical attractiveness, and here, I’m talking mostly about its Northwest quadrant, the only part visitors are familiar with, and where commuters from Virginia and Maryland arrive daily to work.

Even though it’s the world’s foremost generator of mayhem, Washington is supremely tranquil and orderly. With its wide streets, unusually wide sidewalks, many leafy squares and the vast, magnificent Mall, D.C. is the ultimate garden city. It’s greener than Portland, Oregon. It’s also a showcase for culture. All of its publicly owned museums don’t charge admissions, a unique arrangement not just in the United States but likely worldwide, thus the unwashed masses can stream into the National Gallery to admire the only da Vinci in the Americas, 15 Rembrandts, 12 Titians, four Vermeers and two Albert Pinkham Ryders. A laid off factory worker or brain damaged war veteran can stuff his face with Bonnards, Degas, Canalettos and Morandis, then pick his crooked teeth with a Renoir or Cassatt. If still not sated, he can hobble over to the Hirshhorn, Freer or National Museum of American Arts for more artistic nourishment to heft up his mind and bevel down his rough edges.

Washington museums feature almost no local artists, however, for this is a profoundly uncultured place, paradoxically. Nothing germinates here but power. (The only D.C. artists I can think of are Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, two innocuous painters whose canvases are designed for corporate lobbies.) Unlike in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco or even Philadelphia, there are no first rate galleries of contemporary arts here. The politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, military types and spooks who dominate D.C. have loads of money, but they are all culturally conservative. Elites everywhere tend to be that way, sure, but D.C. is a magnet nonpareil for those who crave power and can think of nothing else. They are here to gain and barter influence, not to be distracted or pestered by arts that haven’t been curated, many times over, to be palatable to the status quo. Even arts from many decades ago can threaten and disturb, and that’s why the caustic social commentaries of Max Beckmann or Otto Dix, for example, are safely kept in storage and rarely dragged out for public contemplation. As this nation normalizes legal sadism, Leon Golub’s images of torture will not be on display. Here, why don’t you ogle these colorful blobs of nothing by some garbage painter!

Other capital cities have rich artistic heritages, but not Washington, for it was conceived only to be a center of power. Built up almost entirely from scratch, it’s the ideal American city, literally, with just about every aspect of it carefully calibrated, and almost nothing that’s organic or spontaneous. Its oldest section, Georgetown, was a major slave trading center, as was Alexandria, just across the Potomac. Providing quaintness, fine dining and shopping, Georgetown and Alexandria give tourists a much needed breather from the oppressive monumentalism of downtown D.C.

After its founding, Washington itself became a major slave trading center, and one must remember that Washington, the president, inherited ten slaves at age eleven, had 50 slaves before he married Martha, and owned 123 slaves when he died. (Martha and her children from another marriage had 195 more slaves.) Ben Franklin, by contrast, never owned more than a handful, so it was much less painful for him to release his two slaves, and he only did this at age 79, three years before his death. For much of his life, Franklin only objected to slavery because it was bad, well, for white people, for it made them arrogant and lazy, he claimed. Plus, it wasn’t too wise an investment, and to bring resentful blacks into your household is a pretty stupid idea, Franklin pointed out, and here he was thinking of the domestic slaves common in the North, not the platoons of field hands that an oligarch like George Washington could whip into inhuman productivity in the South.

In 1987, I worked as a looseleaf filer in Washington. I had just quit college and was sleeping on my aunt’s living room’s floor in Annandale. My daily task was to file thousands of pages into binders in law libraries. With a coworker, I would walk from law firm to law firm, and sometimes take the Metro to go as far out as Bethesda, Maryland. Before this job, I didn’t even know that many of these 13-story buildings in downtown were law offices. Since no building in Washington can be higher than the Capitol, the tallest all have 13 floors. Due to superstition, however, many elevators display a “14” button after “12.” Washington Circle, Dupont Plaza, Logan Circle, Mount Vernon Square and the White House do make an inverted pentagram, but that evilness, if you believe in such things, was part of the original plan, and has long been enshrined by concrete, asphalt and tradition.

My job was very low paying yet exact, and we had to work at breakneck speed. Wearing rubber finger grips, we had to zero in on thousands of tiny numbers to make sure no page was inserted wrongly. Rushing, I ran into a glass partition once, but the secretaries, paralegals and lawyers near me did not laugh. For months, a law librarian kept calling me “Kim,” and I never bothered to correct him. I had no time to lose. It didn’t matter. We were just rushing in and out and not a part of any firm. Though at the very bottom of the legal hierarchy, looseleaf filers still had to look somewhat professional, and so I bought five polyester dress shirts and four pairs of old man’s pants from Sym’s, the discount clothing store.

Hard as I tried, though, mistakes were inevitable, for no man is a machine. After one screw up, my supervisor enunciated to me, “Here at Bartleby Temp, we don’t tolerate mediocrity,” and she said the last word so carefully, drawing out each syllable, one might think she had just learnt it herself. The name of the agency is made up, by the way, for I can no longer remember it. What I do recall, however, is a coworker’s dazed face as he emerged from a book stack. Of course, I had to be equally stultified. Our eyes had to be equally glazed.

After work, I socialized with a couple of guys, but there was no place for us to go, really, not on our budget. Unlike in Philadelphia, there were no corner bars where regular joes in goofy T-shirts and worn baseball caps could whoop it up. In downtown D.C., the only taverns catered to the executive types, and the city has become even more exclusive since. With a more bloated federal government, Washington is even richer now, even as the rest of the country become destitute. Just about every expensive house, car, tie, loafer, call girl, gigolo and martini in D.C. is being paid for, one way or another, by joe sixpacks from across this nation. Elected officials come here to feast on illicit money, for you must be daft to assume American graft is limited to campaign contributions. They legalize some corruption to trick you into thinking that’s all there is. In any case, the only other American oasis that’s similarly thriving is Manhattan, for that’s where our banksters and prestitutes dwell. Everybody else is going to hell.

As a looseleaf filer, I belonged to that servant class in D.C. that helped it to function without knowing hardly anything about it, and there was absolutely no hobnobbing with the higher ups, for with their conservative haircut, perfect teeth, gym finessed body and expensive, carefully coordinated outfits, not to mention a confident, upright bearing and honking voice, I’m not kidding, they knew exactly who they were and who they cared to associate with.

One of my coworkers was a tall, black guy who was having the time of his life, however. During lunch, I asked Bill what he did that weekend, and the mellow, soft spoken man closed his eyes and sighed, “I had sex. Lots of it. There are so many good looking guys here. They must be busing them in. I’ve never had so much sex in my life. I’m getting a little tired of it, actually.” Hearing that, I felt anguished and embarrassed, for I had gotten nothing in months, but looking defeated is no way to hook up with any woman, and I had never felt worse in my life. I was socially displaced. Once, a female coworker, a native of Ethiopia, freaked out at a reception desk because she felt disrespected, but I was right there and saw nothing. I don’t blame her, though, not at all, for it was all too easy to feel intimidated or paranoid. Like much of Northwest D.C., these swank law firms are designed to exude authority.

Earlier this month, I was in D.C. for a day and decided to check out Arlington, just across the Potomac from Georgetown. As a teenager, I had gone there to watch kung fu movies, and during my filing clerk days, I’d eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant near the courthouse. It was a rather seedy, five table affair at the back of a grocery store. Its wallpaper showed a snow-capped mountain and waterfall. Pointing to it, a middle-aged white guy shouted, “Don’t drink the water!” He looked as if he was about to sob. The other eaters ignored him. Smiling, the waiter informed me in Vietnamese, “He comes here all the time. He fought.”

Arlington used to have these rather grim apartment buildings, cheap motels and the businesses that catered to such residents, but now it is all spiffed up and gentrified. All the tacky shops on Wilson Boulevard are gone. Its funk purged away, Arlington has become as sterile as downtown D.C. The same process has been repeated all over the area. The smug bubble has enlarged itself. In downtown, there was Scholl’s Colonial Cafeteria at 20th and K, and in the 80’s I’d go there for its cheap prices and humble atmosphere. Once I even took Bill, the sex machine. At Scholl’s, the emphasis was on comfort food, with meat loafs, breaded fish, overcooked spaghetti, soft green beans, soft carrots and mushy spinach, and an assortment of pies, that kind of stuff. With its many elderly diners, Scholl’s had to be mindful of their false teeth and receding gums, not too mention their mournful and exhausted jaws. Anything too hard, such as fresh piece of celery, might just lay them out on the floor. Scholl’s was so cheap, even the homeless ate there. At each table, there was a prayer card and on the walls, framed photos of the Pope. Most of the servers appeared to be immigrants from Central America. In the 40’s, Scholl’s was one of the first D.C. eateries to serve whites and blacks equally. Alas, Scholl’s is no more, and it was finally put of business by the dip in tourism after September 11th of 2001. Even without that incident, I don’t think it would survive to this day anyway.

Seeing next to nothing in Arlington, I got on the Metro and headed to Southeast Washington. Crossing the Anacostia River, you enter another D.C. altogether. Almost everyone here is black, and Washington itself is still half black. Just a few decades ago, it was 70% black, however. Back then, Washington had the highest murder rate in the entire country, and its basketball team was called, appropriately enough, The Bullets. D.C. hoopsters have been rechristianed The Wizards, but a more appropriate name would be The Missiles or The Drones, methinks.

Frederick Douglass spent 18 years in Anacostia, and this was also where disgruntled WWI veterans and their families set up a shanty town as they demanded to be paid, early, their promised bonuses. This was during the height of the Depression and they were starving. Responding to their pitiful pleas, the federal government sent in General McArthur with troops, cops and six tanks to chase them all out and burn down their encampment. During various clashes around D.C., four protesters were killed and over a thousand wounded. On the government side, 69 cops were hurt.

One must remember that Washington itself was founded after the U.S. government had stiffed its own soldiers even before the War of Independence, its very first war, was over. In 1783, roughly 500 troops besieged Congress, then based in Philadelphia, to demand to be paid. A bunch of weasels even then, the Congressmen delegated youngish Alexander Hamilton to schmooze and jive with the angry soldiers. Just give us some time to hash this out, he begged them, but these Congressmen then tried to arrange for troops to come in to snuff out the mutiny. Had they succeeded, you would have American soldiers firing on American soldiers, which was exactly what happened later in D.C. Leery of more incidents like this, the weasels slithered South to erect their ideal city.

I walked a couple miles through Anacostia and saw a handful of take out eateries selling Chinese, chicken or fried fish. One was named “Chicken, Beans and Bones.” Geez, I wonder how much they charge for a whole skeleton? I poked my head into a Korean-owned dry cleaner and noticed the bulletproof plexiglass had vertical slits just wide enough for articles of clothing to be handed in or out. I passed Union Town Tavern, which looked surprisingly chichi for this rather dismal hood. It turns out they have new owners, for the previous is in the slammer for possessing 65 kilograms of cocaine. That’s enough to coat several Christmas plays! Enterprising Natasha Dasher was just 36 at the time of her arrest. Though Anacostia has more than 50,000 people, Union Town is its only full service restaurant or sit down bar. Folks here just go to the liquor store for a tall can or 40-ounce bottle.

Many of the businesses on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Anacostia’s main drag, had small posters commemorating the late Marion Barry, a popular black mayor who was busted for smoking crack. Jailed for just six months, Barry still managed to make the news when he was charged with having a woman sucking him in the prison waiting room. After release, Barry was elected to City Council, then became mayor again. A folk hero, at least to D.C.’s black community, Barry is the only Washington mayor to serve four terms, or 16 years, doubling his nearest rivals, so he must have done some things right.

Historically, blacks gravitated towards Washington because federal hiring practices were much less discriminatory than in the private sector, then when Affirmative Action kicked in, blacks became favored in getting not just government jobs, but contracts, and there are more of those in D.C. than anywhere else. (A side consequence of such wrong headed racial redress is that a recently arrived tycoon from Nigeria or, hell, even China, can now be certified as a minority contractor, and the requirement that one must be at least 25% non-white also sends many whites to dig up their Cherokee, Sioux or Navajo ancestors.) With number came political power, but local politics or demographics have no influence on what really runs D.C., for here is the dark, evil heart of an empire with an unprecedented global reach. In spite of our current, half-black President, blacks are the tiniest cogs of this sinister machinery, but so are most of us. Blacks may be hired as cops and firemen, but they can’t touch the biggest criminals and pyromaniacs that huddle daily on Capitol Hill.

In any case, the black underclass that perform menial tasks downtown live in neighborhoods like Anacostia. They don’t drink in downtown bars either, and I doubt many of them go to the museums, not unless they work there. In 1990, there was an Albert Pinkham Ryder retrospective at the National Museum of American Arts, which is off the Mall and not often visited. Having all of these galleries practically to myself, I kept studying a magnificent Ryder that had not just one but four cows. Squinting, I kept moving closer, then back, closer, then back, and often I had to tilt my head a certain way to avoid the glint off Ryder’s thickly layered linseed oil. After nearly a century, hairline cracks spider webbed across the canvas. If man could live off minutely modulated ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and olive green, I’d have ballooned to about 600 pounds, but that was then. I’ve stopped going to museums. Everywhere I go now, I simply roam the streets.

“Why are you taking so long to look at that?” It was the security guard, a smiling black lady of about 32.

“Um, it’s very rare to see all of this guy’s paintings in one place. I may never get a chance to look at this painting again. I came all the way down from Philadelphia to see this.”

“That’s a painting?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said painting. That’s a painting?”

“Uh, yes, it’s an oil painting.”

“I thought is was just some picture.”

“No, no, this is an oil painting, and it’s old too. There’s only one of this.”


“Yeah, and this guy is good. He’s a very good artist.”

“Listen, come here,” and she led me to a small fountain that had been set up just for this exhibit. In the small pool were four fish.

“See that one,” she continued. “Can you see that his colors are slightly different than the others?”

“Now that you’ve said it, yeah, I do see it. He looks a little bit different than the other three fish.”

“You damn right he does!” she laughed, “and those fish know it too, and that’s why they’ve been attacking him all day long.”

“Oh, man.”

“Yeah, I have to do something about this. Soon as my shift is over, I’ll tell them to get that fish out of here. I don’t want to see him dead.”

“It’s great you noticed that.”

“How can I not notice it? I stand right here all day!”

Indifferent to pictures on walls, that lady was sensitive to many other things and realms, and the fish drama she saw was, to her, an all-too-familiar allegory. Most of us, though, can only bend our neck a certain way, so will only notice what we’re determined to see.

It was dark by the time I headed to Union Station, but on the way there, I happened to catch a group of people, mostly Jews, protesting Netanyahu. Bibi was inside the Convention Center to give a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Though he was schedule to address Congress the next day, many of our Senators and Congressmen also showed up for this event to earn extra asskissing points.

Protesters are a regular feature of D.C. and the locals barely see them. In front of the White House, sometimes you see two unrelated protests marching within sight of each other. Oddballs also appear, such as a man who protested supermarket coupons. D.C.’s most unusual protester, however, is Concepcion Picciotto, for she’s been living in a tiny tent, directly across from the White House, for 34 years now. Born in 1945, this diminutive native of Spain’s main targets are the innumerable war crimes of the United States and Israel, which she calls Israhell. Picciotto is the first, last and ultimate Occupier.

A much more recent addition to the streetscape just outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is Yusef, a beefy, red bearded Muslim with “NO GOD EXCEPT ALLAH MUHAMMED A MESSENGER ALLAH” painted in white on the back of his black polyester coat. In 2011, I had seen him in a sort of flasher’s overcoat and no visible pants, but earlier this day, he had on a beige pair, though with the legs cut off to expose his ankles.

Yusef isn’t objecting to American atrocities against Muslims, but the various deviations, according to him, from true Islam. Thus, his denunciations of vaccines, tunnels (because they block sunlight), movies, television, “picture makers” (which I take to mean painters and photographers) and even electricity. This didn’t prevent him from asking me, in accented English, what time it was. As we talked, a middle-aged, female tourist pushing a stroller glared at him, but when I inquired if people had given him trouble, Yusef merely said, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

Even more than Concepcion Picciotto, Washington’s many homeless are its most damning and enduring protesters against this city’s parasitic affluence, smug criminality and vapid culture of faux refinement. Numbering more than 7,000 as of May 2014, very few beg openly, thanks to D.C.’s severe law against panhandling, but they are visible enough even during the day. To escape the cold wind, some sit or sleep, all wrapped up, in the entrance of the McPherson Square Metro Station, just three blocks from the White House. Keeping reasonably inconspicuous, they rest at the many squares and parks.

At night, though, when the daytripping tourists and commuting workers are all gone, they emerge to claim their sleeping spots all over downtown, including up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, the capital’s grand boulevard. They lie on church steps, grass strips, in doorways and behind hedges, some with crutches or a wheelchair next to them. Rolled up in whatever will hold body heat, including gray packing blankets, they curl up within sight of the Smithsonian museums and the Capitol. Inside the National Gallery, there’s Hieronymus Bosch. Outside, there’s this!

At Union Station, this nation’s most regal train and bus depot, they lie on the circular stone bench around the handsome fountain outside, while during the day, they wander in to embarrass travelers with their grimy, smelly clothes and sometimes delirious monologs. They don’t pull wheeled luggage but, limping in, cradle trash bags with both arms. Like zombies, hoboes or war refugees, they peer into shops with names like Jois Fragrance, L’Occitante en Provence and Oynce. Signs on Union Station’s large, platform like seats, “THANK YOU FOR NOT RECLINING.”

Wearing a leopard print dress, with much of her face covered by a cappuccino-colored shawl, a slim black woman in her late 40’s rocked back and forth as she unleashed an incontinent stream of invectives against unseen foes. Her hands could not be more beautiful. She reeked of urine. “You betrayed me, you betrayed God, you betrayed this government. That’s not the right protocol! You can’t treat people like that. Turn in your badge, you’re a threat to national security! I’m going to have a heart attack if you don’t do so by morning. The heart has to be right place for socialism! You think you can just kill everybody but you yourself will be bombed! You’re nothing but a traitorous person. There’s no effort or sincerity, there’s just treason! You’re all bad people here. You ain’t got no evidence. You can’t do that to me! It’s perjury you committed. I command you to turn in your badge. We’re going to meet in court!” Every five or ten seconds, she punctuated her litany with a five-note riff of scatting, “Toot too too too too.”

Washington was designed to be a perfect square, and it was until Alexandria broke away. When the Interstates were built, “The Beltway” was added to encircle D.C. What you have, then, is a broken square surrounded by a near perfect circle. Flying in, most visitors land at Dulles or Ronald Reagan airports, so from their rented car or hotel shuttle, all they will see coming in is an elegantly manicured, dignified and affluent landscape. In D.C. itself, they will be lavished with magnificent monuments and arts, much of it free of charge, and just about every turn of the neck is rewarded with a grand vista. If this is their only exposure to the United States, then this country is truly a utopia of handsome, well-dressed people who cherish arts, fine dining and well made cocktails. The grit, squalor and menace of Washington are well off the beaten tracks and hardly exist, really, compared to other American cities, and even during its bloodiest years, the bullets didn’t fly in downtown D.C. As for the homeless, they’re shooed away from tourist attractions and don’t really assert their presence until nightfall.

All capitals strive to be showcases, sure, but very few, or perhaps none, is as successful at blocking out its nation’s true ugliness and failures. This sleight of hand, though, also works on many of the residents of this near perfect square inside a near perfect circle. The hell they’ve created keeps seeping in, however, and soon enough, it will overwhelm, if not explode, this Potemkin village of a city. This smug bubble will burst.

Addendum: Returning from D.C. a week ago, I meant to start this Postcard right away, but couldn’t, since my computer was struck by a bunch of very nasty viruses, and this happened as I was in the middle of uploading photos of AIPAC members leaving the Convention Center after Netanyahu’s speech. While wasting five days trying to fix my computer, and it’s only half functional as of this writing, I processed and posted photos from my laptop, but this too was struck with a virus. This second attack was quickly neutralized, however. In all my years of using computers, I’ve never had two infected with viruses within the same week, and I don’t claim to know what happened exactly, but it was surely a reminder that I, like everybody else these days, am completely dependent on various systems that can be cut off at any time, for any reason. Each of us can have our computer, phone, bank card or even car shut down at any moment, and don’t think it won’t happen to at least some of us in the future. What if, suddenly, you won’t be able to withdraw any money, or email or call anyone? Very meekly, we’ve already accepted that we can be prevented from flying without any explanation. As for viruses, these aren’t just used by governments as weapons against each other, but also as a way to punish, or at least warn, individuals.



Anonymous said...


Yes, DC--one of my least favorite U.S. cities. Home of suck asses to the powerful and poor black people living in abject conditions. When I worked as a housing organizer with HUD tenants in the early 90's, I twice took a group of tenants to a national conference in DC from SF. On one trip, one of the older black guys said to me, "It's still like slavery times here."

Of course, I was just there in October on my two city trip which included my walking/bar tour with you in South Philly. I walked for miles and miles in DC and Philly, and visited Anacostia for the first time, starting at the branch of the Smithsonian that resides there, established surely as a peace offering after the black uprisings of the late 60's/early 70's. I asked one of the guards if they got many visitors. "Some in the summer (when there is a shuttle from the mall) and school groups." And the gentrification of near Northeast, all too familiar to this San Franciscan. I must say, however, that the public library system is good--numerous branches with easy WiFi for visitors with laptops.

Caryl said...

Fantastic article. I despise DC as well.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to ramble:
I was a bike courier in 87, bike couriers ferry documents, books from law firms to agencies, other agencies, Capitol Hill and vice versa. Perhaps you were schlepping in some office, while I was smashing mountain bikes to pieces on the street.

I used to think that risking your life and lungs daily to deliver paper between lawyers was a good hustle. Young, no health insurance, and dodging metal in the nation's capital.
Holy shit lawyers in corporate firms made money, you can be half high and see how much these guys were worth by the way they carried themselves, if in fact, you ever did see them.

Linh, you left out the of porno theaters and night clubs that were clustered near the White House on 14th street. Casino Royale, and then almost religously after it has closed, part of the nearby street sunk into a swampy sink hole.

At night, when the office workers left, the prostitutes and night life took over. Crawling past the Washington Post building, around Thomas Circle. You'd come in, in the morning, and see the whole freak show hiking north to where they lived.
Logan Circle, etc used to be much more dangerous than now.

Things have changed, but I often imagine the 80s as a better time that we at least payed attention to the throw aways, Mitch Snyder would be in the news. It was still ok to mention poverty.

Marion Barry for all his faults, deserves some credit, other then crack and hookers. The whole city is built on a swamp, can't forget that either.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Anonymous,

You know, I actually thought about mentioning 14th Street, of which I was rather fond of. That was DC's equivalence of NYC's 42nd Street, before that too was cleaned up.

I wanted to contrast funky 14th Street to the swank strip clubs on M Street, Camelot and King Arthur, plus another one around the corner whose name I can no longer remember. Walking by the other day, only Camelot remains.


Ian Keenan said...

I hit the galleries in Dupont Circle from time to time and they had this great gallery called Fondo del Sol, which recently held a show on the Mexican Revolution including screenings of Gleyser and a Nicaraguan artist who protested against Somoza in the late 60s. I went there once and floors were jam packed with obscure artists from Eastern Europe and Latin America. The last time I went there guys were gutting the building and I thought at first it was some sort of performance piece, and then I asked around at the other venues and they said Fondo was looking to relocate. I tried to contact them but nothing. That's a major loss for DC art. The OAS gallery has fascinated me in recent years - they have an amazing collection they rarely show and the organization is dedicated to implementing US and corporate imperialism, and they sometimes show somewhat political, critical work but not about specific recent policies.. also perhaps my favorite building in town with sculptures of poets in the garden. The Indian museum is rapidly becoming a restaurant/ gift shop.

Speaking of Eastern European art, Jacek Malczewski's Melancholia is in NY for the first time, at 21st St Gagosian for free til April 18, painted while Poland was in the throes of seemingly endless occupation and Czarist cultural destruction in the late 1890s..

One positive thing about the DC museums and politics is that the woman who curated the Iran Modern show for the Asia Society in NY, which had on the web/ gallery timeline "In August (1953), as Iran continues to suffer economically due to its blockaded and boycotted oil industry, the CIA, British Intelligence, and a cadre of Iranian military leaders engineer a successful coup to overthrow Mosaddegh and replace him as Prime Minister with a Shah loyalist general" and "with aid from allied intelligence agencies based in the United States and Israel, the Shah founds SAVAK (in 1957), an internal security service soon to become notorious for its zeal and ruthlessness in hunting down political dissidents in all arenas of public life"
was recently picked to head up the Hirshhorn.

I had also noted 16 months ago that "the Hirshhorn Museum stores four of Smith's Medals for Dishonor* from the late 30s and though they have 197,000 square feet of exhibition space, a large portion of which is devoted entirely to sculpture and all of which could contain sculpture, the medallions have not been displayed in the rotating gallery of sculptures since 1986, which was for the show "Relief Sculpture: Selections from the Museum's Collection."" I uploaded three of them here.
..'Propaganda for War', 'War Exempts Sons of the Rich', and 'Elements that Cause Prostitution'.. Smith spent four intense years working on them in the late 30s after returning from Europe and provided 'poetic' explanations for each one when they were all shown in 1940.

They have quite a poetry scene there though! Poets have arrived there from various places in the South and have in a way created their own version of what the South should be in their minds, a scene which is one of the cultural treasures of the US now.

But yes, it seems that with art, the people in DC with money don't so much think as they barter convenient thoughts for their own personal gain, as they must do to stay influential.

Ian Keenan said...

I wasn't intending to contradict your statement "there are no first rate galleries of contemporary arts here." In complete agreement. Fondo del Sol was an exception but that closed down for reasons unknown to me.

Ian Keenan said...

I was reading anonymous' post and decided to edit it because Linh was talking a while back about how much he likes white editors if I heard him correctly..

Allow documents, books law mountain pieces to think lungs health metal shit Night
the prostitutes took over the Washington Post
dangerous now.
Things have changed, imagine time be still

x larry said...

interesting article and comments on dc and dc/nyc art world. i can't believe the oas has an art gallery!!!--i've just looked it up to be sure. if i may ask, what was that 'white editor' comment all about?--i understand that it's none of my business so won't of course be offended if no response.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi x larry,

I think Ian is cracking a little joke about my issues with people like Craig Brown, Jeffrey St. Clair and Kim Petersen...


Linh Dinh said...

Yo Ian,

As for D.C.'s literary heritage, it's ridiculously thin for such a major city. Almost no authors of note worked there. Katherine Anne Porter lived in Georgetown and wrote her Ship of Fools there. The unpublished Langston Hughes lived there for just a year. Roald Dahl was briefly there, where he worked in the British Embassy. Dos Pasos lived there as a kid. I mean, how does this compare to even New Orleans, San Francisco or even Philadelphia, much less New York, Chicago and Los Angeles? It doesn't come close.

And when you think of London, Paris or Rome in the 20th Century, D.C. is really a joke. Hanoi has produced many more significant contemporary writers than D.C.


Linh Dinh said...

Yo Ian,

In most other countries, the capital is also a cultural power house that attracts leading intellectuals and artists. Just think of Prague, Warsaw or Mexico City. With its culture of unctuous lying, flaunting of wealth and impossibly high rents, D.C. chases the thinking man away. A thinking man of integrity is an absolute freak in D.C.

As for D.C.'s new poetry scene, I know some of those poets and would never knock what they're trying to accomplish, but poetry has been made irrelevant in this culture, and poets, by their actions and attitudes, have contributed to this.


Linh Dinh said...

Yo Ian,

When I wrote, "there are no first rate galleries of contemporary arts here," I meant commercial galleries, places that are sustained by local money and reflect the taste of its rich people (since only rich people buy arts). Fondo del Sol sounds great but it had nothing to do with the local elites. It sounds like it was grafted onto D.C., then disappeared when its money ran out. Plus, it didn't really show contemporary arts, nothing that's fresh from the studio.


x larry said...

hi linh,
don't know kim petersen, but thanks for clueing me in. to me gore vidal is pretty much the only d.c. writer that's not a hack, but he's certainly, at least to me, one of the major u.s. writers of the past half century.
in a word, d.c. is soulless. it's the diametric opposite of philly, home to soul, funk, and one of two or three spiritual centers for black americans. d.c. is anglo america's great wet dream, so safe and orderly, creamy and white.
i have a tiny d.c. anecdote. i was living in pittsburgh, 1989, and drove over to meet my friend for a rolling stones concert at jfk. on the outskirts of the stadium we crossed paths with a young black guy who looked like he'd just been hit in the head with an axe, blood everywhere, and he just said something like, 'what's up' and kept walking. an image forever burned in my brain.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi x larry,

Yeah, you're right, Vidal is very Washington and very much an important writer.


Linh Dinh said...

P.S. Vidal was rich enough to mix with the powerful. His money gave him all kinds of access.

Ian Keenan said...

Linh, I agree with everything you say.. I mentioned Fondo del Sol because their apparent closing is on my mind, relating to how culture becomes gradually staler and one sees that process continually - the amount of good galleries in Boston, too, is just a fraction of what it was just a few years ago. FdS did show new works some times but your statement on their funding is on the mark.. It wasn't trying to emphasize radical politics by any means but they did hit on some histories.

I agree with you about the history of DC Lit which makes the wonderful stuff printed now there by small presses there all the more valuable. The perceived irrelevance of poetry is a group effort of public, state, media, etc. with important assistance at times from certain poets. I don't know how anyone can watch the presidential inaugurations, PBS News Hour segments on poetry, read the New Yorker, etc. and reach the conclusion that poets are anything other than annoying tools of propaganda. The new poetry books at my community library are so awful it's no accident people don't check them out, but the reasons people don't check out the good stuff are more powerful and familiar.

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Ian,

As for the fewer number of good galleries in Boston, that's also very true of Philly and, I suspect, all across the country. One is tempted to say it's the economy but the rich are actually getting much richer!


Ian Keenan said...

The high water mark of how I ever think of this "age"* in poetry is when I look at the poetry section at Bridge Street Books E of Georgetown in DC, because of their selections. Anyone in town should check it out. Great selections..

* Somewhere Frank O'Hara joked about "T.S. Eliot is the great poet of this 'age'"

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Ian,

Poet Laureates are no more than minstrels to power, so it's no surprise who they've chosen for the post. Same with poets who read at Presidential inaugurations.


Ali said...

T. S. Elliot is a minstrel to power? How? (I'm asking out of curiosity!)

Ian Keenan said...

I just went to four NY fairs and they sold well this year. NY draws the collectors' money and artists the world over follow it. Even if work is countercultural, there are people who want to buy something for X now and sell it for X times 100 later..

Ian Keenan said...

Ali, O'Hara was joking more about the pretensions of the term 'age' methinks but you never know with him. I've read crit that he's a minstrel to power and how he opposed it. As Ezra used to say 'Old Possom just wants to be the bank manager'

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Ali,

Eliot was never Poet Laureate of the U.S. In fact, he even adopted British citizenship.

Here are the last 14 Poets Laureates of the USA: Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Louise Glück, Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Natasha Trethewey and Charles Wright.

Now, some of these people are even good poets, but they don't challegenge the political orthodoxy in any way, and their presence gives a cultural veneer to the mass murderers of D.C. They're like necktie clips or brooches.


Ian Keenan said...

Last week I was looking at Dennis Oppenheim's 1960s documentation of snow plowing the international date line and a buyer asked a staff guy 'how come no one else wants it?' on the third day of the fair. 'Well, the estate just blah blah blah whatever comes to mind..' I didn't say 'every other prick thinks what you're thinking' or 'he ripped off Smithson and made a zillion copies' because I try to behave..

Ian Keenan said...

Agreed on the Laureates. Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology was Obama era: identity fronts for the establishment. Pinsky got more pages than Wallace Stevens, etc. American Hybrid was Clinton-era triangulation.

x larry said...

i've never read eliot--tried once, couldn't get into it. but i can imagine. for one, he was friends with the rich and powerful. two, an anglophile. three, close connection to fascist ezra pound. but i'm anything but an expert on those guys and that era.
now we've got seamus heaney, etc. anyone that gets a review in the guardian, forget it.
doug valentine was doing a poetry series on counterpunch (sorry--dirty word!), and had some to me excellent poets. one, from i think south africa, stood out, but i can't remember his name.
i would love linh's and others' recommendations, besides linh himself of course! i've come very, very late to poetry for reasons someone outlined above--most are simply unbearable. i will say i've always liked baudelaire, also shelley.
finally, here in brighton uk, what a dismal selection! the library's terrible, and neither there nor anywhere else (book stores) have i seen linh's books. it's all establishment--our 'classics'. now know your place!

Linh Dinh said...

On Living
Nazim Hikmet, 1902 - 1963


Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example--
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people--
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees--
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.


Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front--
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind--
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.


This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet--
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
--you have to feel this sorrow now--
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Linh Dinh said...

By Czeslaw Milosz

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Warsaw, 1945

Linh Dinh said...

The Colonel
By Carolyn Forché

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
May 1978


Ian Keenan said...


Tom Raworth and Allen Fisher are Brits one should check out. Both read well in public, Raworth's readings are some of the best you'll ever witness
Ernesto Cardenal and Daisy Zamora in Nicaragua
Michel Deguy if you want just beautiful stuff
Raul Zurita
American masters Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Ron Silliman
Every Rod Smith book is priceless. He says his best one is Protective Immediacy (I like it) but you can't go wrong with anything he puts his name on.
Buck Downs also from DC if you want male relationship/ modern world angst/ humor. He sends regular post card poems for a donation.
Dolores Dorantes - was granted US asylum from Mexico somewhat recently. A born poet with pure ear and unshakable social conscience. Some English translations can be found by Jen Hofer who's also good reading.
Linh Linh Linh..
Lisa Jarnot - wonderful, sharp, politically bitter, quit her professorship in disguist but returned to it when the baby was hungry.
Tracie Morris is another to hear live if possible
Will Alexander - Surrealist who worked in the LA Lakers ticket office
Bill Luoma and Juliana Spahr are very refined, aware, prolific expemplars of West Coast US poetry, also Stephanie Young and Kate Durbin from that state
All of Rodrigo Toscano's books are very skillful and the later ones are quite original - works as a labor organizer for Hurricane Sandy cleanup and similar groups. Laura Elrick also is quite good.
I got Jackie Wang's self-published main book of poems and mislaid it somewhere but when it came I read the whole thing straight through and thought Holy S---. Young, a lesbian from a troubled background who writes about hurtful relationships, got an African American Dept scholarship from Harvard and a book deal from MIT for not much dough, very politically angry and candid.
Hard to get Fred Moten's books.. Duke prof, work is uniformily interesting and descriptive of corners of black America
Linh and I both like Michael Palmer and disagree on a lot
I just did this quickly and have spaced on a lot, which can sometimes get you in trouble!

x larry said...

thanks linh and ian!
will try to check out that huge list, ian. also found your blog and the poet links there. looks very interesting, if i ever have the chance to do anything, reading stuff that is. cheers!
still not quite finished with blood and soap, linh. really enjoying it, but little time or reasonably calm head space.

Chuck Olroski said...

Linh; Just read 1/4 of D.C. Postcard, and sincerely felt like I was reading George Orwell's "Down & out in Paris & London." You gave BIRTH to the weary Empire-Capital, this piece is monumental writing, and I loved the description of your sleeping upon floor of Auntie's MD. apartment floor, and job as Bartleby looseleaf filer.

Knowing how you dress "schlocky" day-to-day, I chuckled when reading the description of your "professional" wardrobe, "5-polyester dress shirts and old man's pants bought at Sym's." In such duds today, you'd be on cover of GQ, work slave edition.

I am into this -- and the Bartleby "Temp" manager gal who sternly told you, "we don't tolerate mediocrity" should look at unorthodox Linh Dinh now! Will continue reading tomorrow while it disappointingly rains on Scranton's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Ian Keenan said...

xl, to Poetryland that's a short list.. sorting recommendations out I believe you should always like what you like and not let anything be shoved down your throat, if you should have liked it the first time you may figure that out later. The shoving makes you reject all food.

Keston Sutherland also lives in Brighton, worth checking out

Caroline Bergvall, Peter Quartermain, chris cheek..
Linh's friend Hoa Nguyen

Robert Hass does say Peter Dale Scott's Coming to Jakarta is the best political poem in a long time, as with Scott's Minding the Darkness I agree as content it is the poem including history Pound wanted, if ya like Linh's essays, the form is a repeated Williamsian metrical foot and few 'avant' poets have praised the Canadian Berkeley prof, but it is a time capsule which will outlive a lot of them

Ian Keenan said...

another Canadian born poet - Kevin Davies. If you forget him you have to write a special post, you'll get what I mean if you check him out.


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.