One of the first things that struck me about Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire was the absence of the traditional poet as speaker. The book’s three sections each take on a different era: the American Wild West of the past, a more recent industrialized China, and a possible future era. In each of these sections, different voices present alternating storylines, each alive with enough feeling and conviction to draw you in and keep you engaged in what is being said that you almost overlook how it is being said. Yet, the how of the book – for Hong throughout the book seamlessly moves from ballad to sonnet to prose poem as well as free verse lyric – is vital to its progression and overall power as well. What the book ultimately accomplishes is a meditation on the creative spirit via a poem cycle that takes on the past, present, and future ramifications of industrialization.
In the first section, entitled “Ballad of Our Jim,” the reader is introduced to Jim, an orphaned ghost of a character, who is taken into a posse of cowboys. The story of Jim is presented through ballads from men in the posse, a group whose tone is set in the first poem in this section “Ballad of the Range”:
The whole country is in a duel and we want no part of it.
They see us ride, they say
:all you men going the wrong di-rection.
:We’re getting to California. We ain’t got time to enlist.
In this small excerpt, Hong’s technical ability with regards to tone shines through. Her way with voices and feel for atmosphere is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Out of scraps of conversation, Hong evokes the story of these “men going the wrong di-rection.” Jim, himself, is a balladeer whose lyrical musings are outdone by his status as the posse’s go-to mercenary, goaded more into killing than singing. In “Ballad of the Rube Parade with Their Quiver of Spades,” Jim interrupts a card game between the posse and “henchmen French”:
Our Jim starts singing his infernal ballad –
:Shut yer trap Jim.
He watches silent as our game
ratchets to pistolfire brawl.
Goddamnfilthy French gores us so ropes
of blood gout from our brother’s gullet
We scream: Do it boy! Shoot!
He aims cold, slays them all,
exciting us no end.
He says: I’m done finishing your games.
Not one syllable is wasted in this excerpt. One can almost feel the fight working itself out at the level of language, in the compounding of “pistolfire” and “Goddamnfilthy.” Jim’s distance from the fray as well as his decisive end to it can be read as the creative spirit doing what it needs to for survival. Jim’s story is one of distance as much as killing, which parallels the poet whose presence is felt through the observation of content and the action taken in presenting it. In the second section, “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!,” the poems revolve around the lives of people working and living in the industrialized ruins of Shangdu. In the prose poem “Of the Old Colonial Dutch Quarter,” the story of a woman’s obsession is divulged:
He is one of the painters who works in the Rembrandt factory. He paints 5 Rembrandts
self-portrait paintings a day which I hear are sold to rich town houses and hotels in
a place called Florida. He is renowned as the fastest painter in Shangdu and he has
completed 10,000 Rembrandt self-portraits. In the mornings, I walk past him when he is
on his smoke break. Today, I catch him sniffing his hand.
The creative spirit here is itself in ruins – in the displaced talent of the painter in the factory as well as in the presence of Rembrandt, symbolizing art itself, who turns into a commercial icon. The woman’s obsession for the man stands in for the obsession of culture for cultural products. Later, in the poem “Of the Central Language Radio Headquarters,” the story takes a turn:
The foreman sighed with disappointment and said, He was my best painter. But he’s
gone on to the next city to work at the Renoir factory. He is sick of self-portraits. He
wants to paint beautiful women.
The humor of this turn is deceptive, a sleight of hand where the lives and feelings of people are interchanged with that of products. This awareness of projection on the part of consumers of art and culture, comes into play later with the presence of Coleridge who is subjected to a direct address in “A Little Tete-a-tete.” Shangdu, we are reminded, is also known as Xanadu, the dreamt about place in “Kubla Khan,” which presents a much different version of the city.
The final section, “The World Cloud,” presents us with a vision which could have come out of a cyberpunk novel. In this vision, there is “smart snow” that is able to read your mind and upload your desires and memories from the moment it touches you. An idea of this world can be seen in the first lines of “Who’s Who”:
You wake up from a nap.
Your mouth feels like a cheap acrylic sweater.
You blink online and 3-D images hopscotch around you.
A telenovela actress hides under your lampshade.
You switch to voice activation.
Good Afternoon! Sings the voice of Gregory Peck.
The potential for whimsy in such a poetic conceit is checked by the speaker’s circumstances:
Underneath the sound of children laughing, you hear users chatting
over each other, which all blurs into a warring shadow of insects
and the one that sounds like a hornet is your husband,
telling you to put his stuff in storage.
Or sell it to pay off bills or
leave, why don’t you goddamn leave.
You sit on the bench until the sky turns pink.
When your former employer let you go,
they said, you are now free to pursue what you want to pursue.
So here you are.
This scene, eerily familiar, is the creative spirit overwhelmed and left to float amidst societal pressures. In Engine Empire, Hong, through fantastical content as well as technical virtuosity, gives a grounding and real experience.
Jose Angel Araguz has had poems recently in Slipstream, Gulf Coast, and Right Hand Pointing. He is presently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.