by Cathy Park Hong
W.W. Norton 2012
Reviewed by John Deming
“We have shattered new frontiers with our 14 golf courses”
The ultimate futility of human endeavor is a pleasure in Engine Empire, a new triptych of poems by Cathy Park Hong. She begins in the boomtowns of the old west, pinballs over to what she has called a “fantastical reimagining of present day industrial China,” and finishes in a human future that is lived almost entirely digitally—the kind of thing Google is slouching towards here. The three sections of the book are like points on a triangle, each pointing in its own direction, but relying on the other two for structural integrity. They are set in ostensibly dissimilar times, but each correspondingly betrays an era of human “progress” as a giant lateral step—boom and bust, boom and bust—where metaphysical longing remains a constant.
The poet, though, is not stern or humorless. She glories in the exotic human animal while exhibiting its flaws and contradictions (“Recall the frontier inside us when the business / of memory booms”). Human hubris manifests itself in an addiction to expansion and ever-promising frontiers. It is our perpetual distraction, the coping mechanism of animals who know for certain they will die one day and don’t know what else to do. The settings of her poems are as central as the characters, and they serve as stages from which to build playful, durable poems. She jumps around formally and stylistically, including ballad sequences, prose poems, free verse, an abecedarian, a sonnet, an aubade, and some lipograms. This technically sophisticated approach renders each poem a performance that slyly contextualizes the book’s rather serious subject matter.
Her starting point is the American Civil War, evidence as good as any of the oppressive weight of expansion. She follows a group of gritty, ambitious prospectors who want “no part” in the north-south “duel” and advance west in hope of striking it rich. The 19th-century west is vividly detailed:
All around us forts lie built and unbuilt, half-
walled towns as men yoke themselves to state,
but we brothers are heading through fields of blue rye and plains
scullground to silt sand,
afar, the boomtowns of precious ore.
The landscape is ripe for plunder. The men are reckless and violent in their ambition, killing and raping to no real ends. Hong treats her subject matter with bluntness, but also with a clear eye for its absurdity. In the closing section of “Fort Ballads,” one group of frontier travelers passes another, and the character “Jim” dehumanizes and murders the “other” group, possibly competitors (but probably not), with ease:
It is here we call Our Jim to drain
them of the last dregs of consciousness
he shoots them easy as horses and
we move on, passing
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.
They kill and move on with their conquest with a senselessness of rhythm echoed by the poet’s optional punctuation. The diggers they pass are like worker ants in service to industry; they may dream of riches, but this is little more than a requirement that inspires their continued role playing in the expansion of this empire. Their success is very important to them. To what end? Most see each other fail, and continue failing themselves.
The act itself, however hopeful or greedy, is the true ambition, whether they know it or not. It gives the individual a reason to keep on, and allows the poet to hint at the sweeping desperation of it all. If the worker pauses long enough to notice this desperation, more work, another lottery ticket, is the way to block it out quickly—an idea elaborated on in the second section, “Shangdu, Our Artful Boomtown,” where the boom is not a gold rush, but a rush for industrial prosperity. The elusive goal—wealth—yields for the wealthy the same hollow ends that define the quest for prosperity:
We have shattered new frontiers with our 14 golf courses.
A dexterous harmony of manmade and natural hazards,
fairway glades surrounded by leafwhelmed mountains
of tinted tallow trees and pars graced with stately flame
(“A Little Tete-a-Tete”)
The wry tone, the alliteration, the use of words like “leafwhelmed” demonstrate the absurdity of the scene without detracting from its natural beauty. Reality beyond human design—the mountains—is worthy of attention and adoration, while the human imposition upon it—the golf courses, which may be beautiful too—carries for the humans the same depth of accomplishment that pillow humping provides for a dog. It is a skillful balance rendered by the poet, who in her critique of human activity never purports to know too much. Instead, she performs for us, laying out incredibly agile poems like her “Aubade,” which contains a shade or two of Wallace Stevens in his more percussive moments:
I am ready in my plaidwhelmed
puffpuff golf hat. Ready to be
whelmed by a petstore cacophony
of crickets shirruping in their cage balls,
juddering slam of hammering jack,
humming sussurations of catamarans,
aerosol striations of welder’s firecrack,
then a caracas of fist cracks
after workers slurp off their goggled specs
to a bassooning fog horn hooning
so spooning lovers know when to return
to their dawn shift, tuning cymbals
for toy baboons who clap clap,
Hail the Industrial Age, hail!
The prosperity that permits the golf courses depends upon the hard work of those worker baboons who wake early, who leave their beds and loved ones in service of empire. And the final purpose of empire, apparently, is the opportunity to feel “whelmed” from time to time by manmade and natural beauty.
Hong defies her own objective stance here and there by providing small glimpses of the suffering that is endured in the service of providing these “whelming” moments for a select few. For example, the “spooning lovers” listed above or the “old travelers forever dying” that Jim kills. But she saves her most robust insights for the book’s perfect final section, “The World Cloud.” Here, the “boom” is life in the world of technology and its ever more promising distractions. The physical aspects of this frontier—“now every industry / has dumped whole cubicles, desktops, / fax machines into developing / worlds where they stack / them as walls against / what disputed territory”—are immaterial next the “shared dream” of virtual existence, where people exist seamlessly alongside their internet selves, going on and offline with the blink of an eye:
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.
You look out your window, across the street.
Faded mattresses sag against a chain-link fence.
As with the gold digging and golf courses, there is a pronounced meaninglessness even in a mighty technological achievement like the Internet. In Hong’s near-future, “minds flood into minds,” and pop-up ads blow by like leaves, leaving the average citizen “half transparent / with depression.” People can even visually “enhance” something they are viewing in real time. One could say this generates a reality that is supported only by artifice, like living in a video game. Conversely, one could argue that our potential to develop these technologies is as real as anything else, and if we can slightly enhance the extent to which we are “whelmed,” then why not? It could even be perceived as an artistic act, depending on how much choice is involved. But none of these viewpoints address a more central problem: any moment of peace or beauty will pass, and no amount of industriousness or money grubbing can reverse basic facts about time, decay, separation, and death.
To that end, “Who’s Who,” while not one of the most formally ambitious poems in the book, is one of the best. Hong’s central character is incredibly memorable: a woman whose husband still lives with her physically, but who has abandoned her in a more modern sense—he has chosen to live “on roam,” and has only sent her one message since doing so: “I am by a pond and a coyote is eating a frog. It’s amazing.” She takes care of him in the physical world, clipping his fingernails to “keep up appearances,” perhaps only because the only alternative would leave her even lonelier.
Moments like this are earned in Engine Empire—they creep into poems that pretend style is their central appeal. When they land, they are a reminder that we can’t invent our way out of certain problems, even if we find a way to live forever. The husband’s virtual delusions are similar to the money-chasing ambitions in this book: both mean chasing shadows. This virtual delusion—think permanent Facebook—earns its counterbalance in the poem “Get Away from It All,” where a speaker is able to escape the dehumanizing delusions it seems exhausting to keep supporting. She walks out into an expired world, she quotes Whitman, she finds a Whitman-prophet on the beach, and in this moment, a wisp of salvation:
are they UN forces no
they are nudist bathers.
They have beached.
Dashed with amorous wet,
they call out like walruses,
these loafing rebels against
I see too much
yet go, go into the unknown,
smell the salt, rancid
scent of water, seagull,
blades of grass and listen,
the one with the sodden beard says
you are not guilty to me.
She holds herself back from these kinds of moments, which makes them all the more affecting when they come about—you are busy being entertained, and suddenly, you are “whelmed” with insight and an abiding need for empathy. No amount of financial security can teach us how to die, nor can inventing our way into distraction. Hong’s book is not about exorcising personal demons or telling her own sad stories. It is about the world, and is a chance to listen to its music. It is also a chance to find the world hysterical, but from a position of empathy that does not undermine the suffering we experience—suffering that, like beauty, is sometimes human-generated, and sometimes just simply a mark of our reality.