Cathy Park Hong—Engine Empire
My initial encounter with Cathy Park Hong’s poetry occurred in May of 2006 when fellow Harriet blogger—now, not then—Thom Donovan was curating a reading and event series called Peace on A out of his apartment on Avenue A in New York City’s East Village. The apartment was across the street from where Ed Sanders’s Peace Eye Bookstore was located in the ’60s, which partly explains the name of the series. Anyway, Thom invited Hong and I to read. I think I had previously seen a couple articles she wrote for the Village Voice, but I didn’t know her or her poetry. She read poems from a manuscript that won the Barnard Women Poets Prize (selected by Adrienne Rich, about whom Hong recently posted a moving tribute on Harriet), and was published in 2007 with the title Dance Dance Revolution.
A sci-fi-ish mashup of languages, cultures, and geographies, Dance Dance Revolution is one of my favorite poetry books published since 2000. This isn’t the place to describe or praise it, which I’ve already done for The Believer. She’s followed up Dance Dance Revolution with a new book of poems entitled Engine Empire, which contains a similar amalgam of voices, identities, historical eras, and interwoven narratives. Yet whereas Dance Dance Revolution imagined a dystopic near future, Engine Empire begins by traveling back in time, specifically to a kind of Evil Roy Slade-meets-Deadwood American West with its expropriative violence driving U.S. domestic and foreign imperialism, which, of course, is ultimately economic in motivation. A set of mock ballads, some employing Oulipian techniques, opens Engine Empire: “At dawn, marshal stalks that ranch, / packs a gat and blasts Kansan’s ass / and Kansan gasps, blasts back. / A flag flaps half-staff.”
Hong’s poetry creates whole worlds, instead of being satisfied with representing a small sliver of this one or this I. The book’s second part describes an imaginary Chinese city called Shangdu that mirrors its contemporary real-life counterparts: factories, workers, pollution, and the dream of purchasing a piece of paradise as summed up in the title of the poem “Market Forces Are Brighter Than the Sun.” The language and imagery in this section are as inventive as ever (including a satirical riposte to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”), even if the tone is a bit more serious: “My mind slides like a sword in my mouth / and I awake caked in spit.” Engine Empire ends (while the engine of empire grinds on) with a lyrical suite of poems conjuring an increasingly virtual reality in direct proportion to the destruction of our shared material one.
Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...