Cathy Park Hong: “Ballad in A”
Here’s a situation that’s hypothetical for some yet all too familiar for the clumsier among us. You spill something especially sugary or goopy all over your computer and a few keys gunk up; now, improbably enough, the only vowel you can type is A. You can type banana but not orange. Adam but not Eve. Yes to Atlanta, baklava, Chaka Khan; no to enormous swaths of the English language and its workhorse words—I and you, yes and no, English and language. With a lexicon so severely limited, could you type something that passes for a letter? A blog post? A passive-aggressive tweet? An entire poem?
Let’s hope that the contemporary American poet Cathy Park Hong kept her computer intact and spill-free when she wrote “Ballad in A,” her slapstick, seditious tribute to cowboy ballads and Wild West rumbles, which miraculously compacts a Western saga into 20 lines, written with no vowel other than a. (With exceptions: did you spot them?) First appearing in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine, “Ballad in A” became a show-stopping set piece in the first section of Hong’s Engine Empire (2012), a triptych of speculative worlds surveying empire’s machinations in a mythologized past, a contentious present, and an unsettling future. That first section, “Ballad of Our Jim,” offers a pastiche of the classic American myth, the Western frontier: Hong follows protagonist Our Jim—half-Comanche and half-white, “a two-bit half-breed” to the band of brothers who adopt him—into the busting boomtowns of a multiethnic, loosely regulated California. In an interview published alongside “Ballad in A,” Hong, who was born to Korean parents and raised in Los Angeles, describes her reinvention of the Western as equally political and personal, as both “building a myth out of a myth” of American exceptionalism and reconstructing a home that feels lost: “this is my way of finding it again.” For her next two sections, Hong travels through time and space to “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!,” a Kafka-esque town in today’s industrializing China, and “The World Cloud,” a sci-fi existence verging on the post-human, where computing accumulates in a chilly material called “smart snow.” Since her second collection, Dance Dance Revolution (2007), which concocts a near-future creole, Hong’s books have been celebrated for their world building, an imaginative feat found less often in poetry collections than in novels, multi-season TV shows, and roomy video-game universes. Read Hong’s books cover to cover, and you’ll discover not only inimitable speakers but also their many-peopled environments, their routines and still-evolving languages, their self-serving histories and world-changing technologies.
Reading and rereading a single poem illuminates other virtues: Hong’s ear for patterning, her daring stunts within formidable constraints, her alchemy with familiar genres. “Ballad in A” names one genre in its title: the ballad, a narrative song generally rendered in quatrains (which Hong retains), with even meter and regular end rhyme (which Hong drops). This ballad is also a lipogram, a text that forbids one or several letters of the alphabet. Hong’s especially straitjacketed form, which excludes all vowels but one, is called a univocalic (from the Latin for one-voweled). For these and other formal hijinks, for constraints so whimsically arbitrary that (depending on your point of view) they are exhilarating or excruciating to pull off, thank the mid-century French collective known as Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, “Workshop of Potential Literature”). The indefatigable Oulipian Georges Perec (1936–1982) authored an entirely e-free novel, La disparition (1969, translated into English under the title A Void). How to follow up? An e-only novella, Les revenentes (1972; English title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex). In English, the best-known and longest-sustained univocalics are the five chapters, one per vowel, of Eunoia (2001), by Canadian experimentalist Christian Bök. Like Hong, Bök assents to an impossible-sounding task only to make it even harder, adding “subsidiary rules” that govern style and substance—every chapter, Bök decreed, must describe a curious set of classical subjects, all as old as Homer: “a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”
“Ballad in A” may have come from a similar self-assigned formal exercise: “using no vowel but a, write a cowboy ballad pitting foul-mouthed outlaw against expert lawman.” Hong’s first, run-on sentence quickly proceeds from such innocuous gameplay (“A Kansan plays cards”) and verbal sparks (“calls Marshall / a crawdad”) into light violence, a “slap.” Our rascally Kansan takes the hit hard: after he “scats” and returns to his ranch, he launches into a florid complaint. Humiliated by a representative of the “Law,” the Kansan “can’t bask,” “can’t bacchanal” (that is, party hard like Bacchus, Roman god of wine), and can’t “garland a lass,” the sole woman mentioned in “Ballad in A.” (In past English poetry, garlands don’t go on lasses: in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the creature “drest” with “garlands” is a female cow.) Worst of all, the Marshall’s slap wipes clean the Kansan’s dirty reputation, his verbal authority for insults and boasts: now, he “can’t at last brag can crack Law’s balls.” Like many a Western villain, as this Kansan grows more lonesome and incensed, he becomes all the more eloquent and flamboyantly figurative: according to his vengeful “cantata” (Italian for a vocal composition with instrumental accompaniment), come “Mañana” (Spanish for tomorrow), he will assemble “an armada” (Spanish for a fleet of warships), and “slam Law” with “a damn mass war path” (that is, the path taken by Native American warriors, a term now used more generally).
That trash-talking Kansan never gets his chance. Cut to the Marshall, a chimerical macho man, far more fearsome than the Kansan lets on. A practiced “marksman” and tracker across this unmapped West, the Marshall is valorized with hyperbolic similes: “calm as a shaman,” or faith healer, and graced with animal-like acuity—“sharp as a hawk.” Yet he is no nobler, and no less vengeful, than that “dastard” Kansan: the next dawn, he “stalks that ranch, / packs a gat and blasts Kansan’s ass.” All thanks to his casual insult (“crawdad!”), the Kansan is killed—assuming, of course, that a blasted ass is a fatal condition. We can be surer about the Marshall. After the “Kansan gasps, blasts back,” the poem startlingly jumps ahead to a formal symbol of mourning: “A flag flaps at half-mast.” The crooked “Law” of this anonymous Western town suffers a casualty, but Hong’s compositional law—her univocalic constraint—endures to her very last line, which performs at least triple duty: it ends the poem with its sole elegiac image, a flapping “half-mast” flag; it soundtracks the poem’s close with a vibrant breeze of consonants, f, l, and s; and it provides one last cinematic gesture, a cut through time and over space.
The peculiar surfaces of “Ballad in A” encourage us to feel around for gaps and irregularities, for the vowels and vocabulary forced out by the univocalic’s strictures. Without four primary vowels (y appears in the diphthong “ay,” never on its own), Hong forgoes most past-tense verbs and present participles (no -ed, no -ing), all conjunctions save and, most pronouns save an insistent that, and the crucial words is and not—though Hong, plucking out their vowels, squeezes them into conjunctions: Kansan’s, can’t, Marshall’s. The resulting sentences—compressed yet run-on, given to lists as well as to parataxis—might recall the rapid montages of fight or chase scenes as cause cuts abruptly to effect, and every new line reinstates a gripping present tense. (The analogy with film might clarify other effects: Hong replicates close-ups by lingering on small details—the Kansan hanging up “kack, ax, and camp hat,” the Marshall chewing “lamb fatback”—and later “edits out” any R-rated goriness in her final quatrain, skipping from gun’s “blast” to flag’s “flap.”) Hong’s careful omissions suit this Western boomtown, a society founded on omissions: good luck finding women or children, civility or order, or any future for these bumbling men and their busting economy. Or anyone who isn’t white. Throughout “Ballad of Our Jim,” people of other races meet dire fates, impassively recounted in the later “Ballad of Other Folk”: “One Chinaman gets knifed for being what he is.” The exclusionary form of “Ballad in A,” prohibiting such words as African, Asian, and Native American, insinuates a sinister analogy between linguistic uniformity and racial uniformity.
Hong doesn’t just leave words out of “Ballad in A”; she also packs lots in: polyrhythmic sonic patterns, resourceful workarounds, ingenious rule-bending. In this composition “in A” (in the musical key of A, immersed in A, in the dialect called A), every word resonates with a dozen others, humming the same scale of vowel sounds, repeating consonant clusters and long syllables as chewy as fatback: ar, al, as, at, ack, kan, mar. Overlaying that percussive backing track is clattering alliteration—for starters, Kansas-cards-calls-crawdad, bask-bacchanal-brag-balls, rang-ramada-ranch—and internal rhymes extending from first quatrain to last (deep breath now): jackass-back-kack-bacchanal-crack-track-fatback-packs-back. Barred from abbreviating her protagonists to pronouns—no he, no they—Hong juggles epithets: Kansan becomes rascal then jackass then dastard, the Marshall an avatar of the Law then a marksman on par with shaman and hawk. Hong is so committed to the univocalic, and her sonic palette so consistent, that you can listen to “Ballad in A” dozens of times before noticing the two exceptions to her rule, right at the ballad’s midpoint: “Mañana, Kansan snarls, I’ll have an armada.” Both vowels could be pranks played on English and its imprecise phonetics. The final vowel of have is a fine example of the “silent e”; flatten that I’ll with enough drawl, and you’ll exude a syllable resembling Al, all, or awl. Hong, who handles the univocalic with virtuosic ease, could have avoided both exceptions. It must be no accident that she relaxes her constraint in a line preserving the speaking I, the human voice at its most expressive and extravagantly musical.
“Ballad in A” has all the entertainments of a golden age Western flick: the Technicolor backdrops and shoot-’em-up sequences, the clamorous soundtrack and immaculate craft. But just as Westerns by New Hollywood and contemporary directors, from Robert Altman to Mel Brooks to Kelly Reichardt, turn the genre inside out, Hong reclaims the Western by repurposing its conventions and popping its overinflated mythology. She writes a ballad aimed at exceptionalist myths within the American empire and American poetry alike.
We can hear Hong questioning so-called Standard English, its dominance and apparent unity, in her bravura hybridizing of languages, of dictions: the all-A drawl of “Ballad in A” is not all-American but a world-spanning pidgin, blending regionalisms (crawdad, the crustacean you may know as crayfish or crawfish), Western slang (kack, a saddle; had, doomed), and borrowings from Spanish (caballada, a herd of horses; ramada, an open-air shelter roofed with branches). Hong also stirs in the Italian cantata, the Latinate bacchanal, and the Chinese-by-way-of-Russian shaman; her assonant duos of packs and gat, blasts and ass, are classic gangsta rap. Try “Machine Gun Funk” (1994) by the Notorious B.I.G., whose larger-than-life persona and “propho-rapping” Hong appreciates in her later poem “Notorious.” As long as you’re digging up etymological roots, why not look up Kansan—the poem’s most-repeated word, appearing nine times across all five stanzas. Today, Kansas might seem as classically American (or fairy-tale white) as Dorothy Gale from L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels: it’s worth remembering that the place name Kansas comes to English from Kansa, the tribal language of the Kaw Nation. Our braggadocious dastard might be proud to tout the name Kansan: what does he think of that name’s origin or the first people to speak it?
At every level, Hong’s poetry is comparative: its oscillations between standard dialects and homebrewed pidgins, its jump cuts between perspectives, the kaleidoscopic variety of its genres and speculative worlds. Her poems are best read in combination, backward and forward, over and over again. If “Ballad in A” makes a hoot out of violence, most of Engine Empire finds little reason to laugh. Later in “Ballad of Our Jim,” a lonesome “drifting Jim” finds himself hollowed out by racist and colonial traumas—“his victimizing intrinsic within his mind, / grinding within his skin, / Jim sings: I’m tiring, I’m tiring.” (Recognize the constraint? That’s “Ballad in I.”) Later in the book, engine’s empire upgrades in modernizing Shangdu, where the frontier is the sky and high-rise apartments shoot up above desiccated sorghum fields. Inside the World Cloud, the frontiers left to be conquered are the boundaries between human and machine, personal memory and computer memory. If once the state tracked down its prey with a marksman “sharp as a hawk,” today it plugs in security cameras and someday will trawl the search engine of your past: “you can go spelunking / in anyone’s mind, / let me borrow your child // thoughts, it’s benign surveillance” (“Engines Within the Throne”). Hong’s speculative worlds share porous borders with one another as well as our own world. Amid all the buffoonish gunplay and macho face-offs, the oversized American myths and hybridizing languages, you might see something familiar, pulled into focus by Hong’s subversive, grade-A play.
Christopher Spaide is a critic, poet, teacher, and PhD candidate in English literature at Harvard University. Born in Germany, he grew up in New York City and earned his BA from Amherst College and MSt from Oxford University. His criticism appears in Boston Review, the New Yorker online, Slate, and Yale...