Cathy Park Hong’s third volume of poems, “Engine Empire,” reads like a primer for the modern world. It is a book of contradictions, sweeping and shuddering landscapes, varying forms and conditions. The poems reveal, through a kind of three-act play, how mankind’s scientific and industrial “progress” has brought us to the brink of oblivion.
The book begins with ballads. Traditionally, ballads are narrative in nature, with a self-contained story, and can be tragic, historical, romantic, or comic. Hong’s ballads cover much of this ground; they imagine an old-timey western landscape. The “wild west,” it could be argued, was one of the original crucibles in which the American sense of self was forged. The first line of the first poem (“Fort Ballads”) feels very modern, and terribly familiar:
The whole country is in a duel and we want no part of it. (19)
The ballads follow the story of Jim, a “two-bit half-breed” who, as commonly happened in frontier towns, comes to a violent end. Racial tensions and murder become the foundation of the future (that is, our current) nation:
a legendary mining town drained of its ore
yet still, still the isolated men settle to dig
and dig, furrowing wilder
into the earth.
We see the empire rising. (25)
We could compare present-day America to the Roman Empire, most bloated and corrupt just before its collapse, or to the diminishing returns of a once-fertile landscape, overly-mined and stripped bare. The boomtown becomes a ghost town, empty and haunted by its past. This concept is furthered in the book’s second section, which contains a series of prose poems set in the city of Shangdu. As a resident of the city tells us, “Boomtown is Shangdu’s brand name…Do you know why? Shangdu is booming!” (50)
But this narrator’s descriptions of Shangdu quickly start to sound like advertising, political propaganda, or someone desperately trying to convince herself of something that is not true. For a boomtown, Shangdu certainly has its problems:
Every highrise lacks something. Highrise II has no heat. Highrise 22 lacks floors, Highrise 33 has no spigots, Highrise 44 lacks windowpanes, Highrise 55 lacks stove ranges, while Highrise 66 is lopsided. (53)
Shangdu, perhaps also known as Xanadu, really was once a thriving city founded by Kublai Khan. As I read these poems, I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s vision of the city as a metaphor for splendor and opulence: the stately pleasure-dome, the fertile ground, the walls and towers, and blossoming, incense-bearing trees. In Hong’s vision of Shangdu, however, we find a Rembrandt forger named Rembrandt, and aquariums that are (rather ominously) built next to seafood restaurants. Reality in this city is merely representational: copies of copies that have missing pieces, smudges and blurs.
The third act of Engine Empire is the most terrifying because, for this reader at least, it feels the most prescient. The poems in this section are written in looser forms; they’re scattered, meandering, with lines that float their way down the page. The narrators wool-gather, circle back on their own arguments, repeat themselves, drift off into strange silences, pauses, and paranoia. They describe an imminent future, where technology is pervasive. Humans are plugged into an invisible network that reads our minds, and does our thinking for us. In “A Visitation,” one of several poems written in the second person, we are told:
You are at home.
You are wearing bicycle shorts though you don’t own a bike.
Outside your window, you see a flower you don’t recognize.
The voice of Gregory Peck booms: Honey Suckle.
You don’t know anything anymore. (70)
This could be each of us in our homes today: Googling instead of studying deeply, programming our technologies to speak to us as if they are alive, and pretending to be exactly who we aren’t. The reader is already somehow implicated, complicit, in this future, where minds are absorbed by a new technology called “smart snow”:
The snow is still beta.
You feel the smart snow monitoring you,
uploading your mind so anyone can access your content. (70)
Smart snow—reminiscent of the blank white TV static from the antennae’d days of our childhoods—blankets widely and dampens our abilities to think or be. We’re wiped clean. Or maybe we’re wiped away. If the empire of the modern world is, in fact, an engine, it is—according to Cathy Park Hong’s glittering vision—chugging inexorably forward into a strange and frightening future indeed.
Cathy Park Hong will read her work on Friday, October 26, 2012, 7:30 p.m. at Open Books: A Poem Emporium. Additional information can be found at www.openpoetrybooks.com/index.html.