Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

CATHY PARK HONG. ENGINE EMPIRE.

Reviewed by Jeff Alessandrelli
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Fall 2012)

The existence of ‘‘smart’’ snow that ‘‘monitors you,’’ staring, watching, studying. Being online constantly, 24/7, and merely having to blink your eyes to go off. Flying aerocabs. Antique ringtones that remind one of a time when it was all so much simpler. Everywhere, a complete erasure of the ‘‘old realism.’’ Cathy Park Hong’s latest collection, Engine Empire, presents a world that is simultaneously utopian and dystopian, one where—due to the existence of such heightened technology—things both are and are decidedly not what they seem.

Arranged into three disparate sections, Engine Empire begins during a formative point in America’s history: the California Gold Rush that arose out of the backdrop of the Civil War. ‘‘Ballad of Our Jim,’’ the first section, details how ‘‘The whole country is in a duel and we want no part of it. . . . We’re getting to California.’’ The section thus takes its name from its title character, a ‘‘half-bit breed’’ sharpshooter who can sing ‘‘as if his body’s all reed.’’ An orphan, he’s different than the ragtag band of brothers that adopt him, less interested in wealth and women than he is in the fact that an ‘‘empire [is] rising’’ in America, one that will not be receding anytime soon. A ‘‘false pond’’ in the ‘‘eternal light where night never descends,’’ this empire is vaguely malevolent, possessing an unstoppable momentum; nothing can stop its progression, not even Jim’s munificent singing. ‘‘Ballad of Our Jim’’ thus concludes with the death of our hero: as he rides into a ‘‘shadowed plain’’ a ‘‘storm of grasshoppers’’ attack him and Jim perishes, slowly sinking into ‘‘the denuded earth.’’ The American empire, it is made clear, will continue to grow, east to west, north to south, and everywhere beyond.

‘‘Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!’’ is the book’s centerpiece and its strongest section. Shangdu was the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty in China; English speakers might know it by the name Xanadu. In Hong’s version of the ‘‘pleasure-dome’’ filled town, then, ‘‘Market Forces Are Brighter Than the Sun’’ and there are factories entirely devoted to reproducing famous paintings by famous painters—the best worker at the Rembrandt factory ‘‘paints 5 Rembrandt self-portrait paintings a day,’’ which the poem’s speaker hears ‘‘are sold to rich town houses and hotels in a place called Florida.’’

Shangdu is a place where the ‘‘seafood is so fresh it is alive. The new aquarium is so realistic it looks like a glass tunnel suspended inside the ocean.’’ And yet it is simultaneously also a town filled with sorrow and lack. As is made clear in the prose poem ‘‘Of All the Highrises,’’ ‘‘Every highrise lacks something. Highrise 11 has no heat, Highrise 22 lacks floors, Highrise 33 has no spigots, Highrise 44 lacks windowpanes, Highrise 55 lacks stove ranges,’’ and so on. Most ominously, Highrise 88 lacks ‘‘its last wall’’ and Shangdu residents use its ‘‘unencumbered views to fall to their deaths.’’ Imbued with whimsy, inanity, and nostalgia, lightly tinged with sadness, ‘‘Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!’’ showcases Hong’s strengths as a poet. It also bears the mark of Hong’s influences: in ‘‘A Little Têteà-tête,’’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge is invited to tee off with the poem’s speaker on one of Shangdu’s ‘‘14 golf courses,’’ each of which is a ‘‘dexterous harmony of manmade and natural hazards, / fairway glades surrounded by leafwhelmed mountains / of tinted tallowed trees.’’ The ending line of ‘‘Seed Seller’s Sonnet,’’ the last poem in the section, is also wholly familiar, reading ‘‘Then I had a most marvelous piece of luck [ . . . ] I
died’’. It’s unknown what John Berryman’s Dream Songs stand-in alter ego Henry might have thought of Engine Empire or Shangdu, but Hong is certainly unafraid of invoking him.

Engine Empire concludes with ‘‘The World Cloud.’’ And it is in this final section that Hong’s imaginative capabilities fully come into play and where half of the collection’s title derives from; ‘‘the search engine is inside us,’’ and as a result of that fact ‘‘the world is our display’’ and ‘‘now we have . . . sensors / so you can go spelunking / in anyone’s mind.’’ The ramifications of such technologies are nuanced and multifaceted.

In ‘‘The World Cloud,’’ ‘‘nothing ever goes dead’’ but ‘‘what to do with all this leisure,’’ what to do in a world that has more to do with the virtual than the actual, more to do with the mental than the physical? The speaker of the poem ‘‘A Wreath of Hummingbirds’’ confesses ‘‘I suffer a different kind of loneliness. / From the antique ringtones of singing / wrens, babbling babies and ballad medleys, / my ears have turned / to brass.’’ In ‘‘The World Cloud’’ there is no escape from such predicaments as related in ‘‘A Wreath of Hummingbirds,’’ and the book ends with the poem ‘‘Fable of the Last Untouched Town.’’ Presented in it is a town ‘‘impervious to discomfort’’ but one where its citizens are nevertheless ‘‘afraid’’ that their leaders will read their dreams for fear of what they will discover about them. It is a less than pleasant place, this untouched town, and the poem ends with its speaker eating some snow from an ‘‘offensive glacier’’ that suddenly appears inside ‘‘the king’s most cherished open-air stadium’’ after a monumental winter storm. The snow from the glacier has mysterious properties and can cause man or woman to have most unsettling visions. This prospect entices the poem’s speaker; ‘‘Then one night I don’t know why I swallowed it. / And this is what I saw’’ are the final two lines of both the poem and Engine Empire as a whole.

The follow-up to her well-regarded Dance Dance Revolution, Engine Empire is a different kind of book for Hong, one that seductively murmurs where Dance Dance Revolution enthusiastically shouted. Well written and evocative, it will not change your life. But it will force you to question the possibilities life offers, in the past, in the present, in the future. And little more can be asked of a collection of poetry than that.