Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ENGINE EMPIRE by CATHY PARK HONG

EILEEN TABIOS Engages

ENGINE EMPIRE by Cathy Park Hong
(W.W. Norton and Company, New York / London, 2012) 

There are stories, messages, a content in Cathy Park Hong's latest book, Engine Empire.  Basically, it's about how empire-building rests on the abuse, pain, neglect (among others) of others, mostly the non-privileged, until everyone is affected through loss, including a chipping away at community.  Or, as the book jacket says (in thoughts that are further expanded in an accompanying press release)--

 Engine Empire is a trilogy of lyric and narrative poems that evoke an array of genres and voices, from Western ballads to sonnets about industrialized China to fragmented lyric poems set in the future. Through three distinct yet interconnected sequences, Cathy Park Hong explores the collective consciousness of fictionalized boomtowns in order to explore the myth of prosperity. The first sequence, called "Ballad of Our Jim," draws inspiration from the Old West and follows a band of outlaw fortune seekers who travel to a California mining town during the 1800s. In the second sequence, "Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!" a fictional industrialized boomtown draws its inspiration from present-day Shenzhen, China. The third and last section, "The World Cloud," is set in the far future and tracks how individual consciousness breaks up when everything-books, our private memories-becomes immediately accessible data. One of our most startlingly original poets, Hong draws together individual voices at odds with the world, voices that sing their wonder and terror.

So, part of Engine Empire's admirable facets is this interesting melding of the Old West and present-day industrialized Shenzhen.  The rubbing together of these references create for some fresh perspectives on an old story.  From the West, here's an excerpt from "Ballad of our Jim"

Ballad of Infanticide

Near starved, we find a fort of teetolaers
who begrudge us their succor.

While we eat up all their salt pork,
Our Jim sings for them in his strange high voice
of an Injun killing ranger who hitches up
with his Comanche guide.

She bears him a strapping son and is ramped
with another, when the ranger hives off
with a fair-haired sheriff's daughter.
He then banishes his squaw and his sons
like they're prairie beeves.

But she won't go quietly:
she poisons his new wife with a malarial dress,
and that ain't the worst of her sins, that tar-eyed witch
strangles her own newborn,
and the other son flees--

The ladies cry: enough of this devil song.
Then it done occurs to us, looking at his dusky skin--

Our Jim's a two-bit half-breed.

From the East, here's an excerpt from "Year of the Pig"

2.9

I am covetous of you and curse our birth order,
I long for lightspeed Shangdu.
Brother, imagine me.

I tilled and tilled our narrow plot from daybreak to cinder dusk.
When you write about the 400 string lights,
you and your new wife hurting w' laughter
on a duck-shaped boat

do you know your laughter carries isself to our lornsome hills
and flushes my ears when I feed
Ma her broth?

Can I join you, Brother? Do you have room for me?

Later in the poem, Ma dies and the poem ends with

5.5

Brother, why have you not written?
Brother, can I join you?

It's moving.  It powerfully resonates.  But because Empire is an old (as well as eternal) story, I was mostly interested in the future delineated in the book, and therein does my admiration most surface.  My enthusiasm was perversely kindled by this section's chilliness or iciness which befit a world where new adventures occur in whats been called the new Wild West: the internet. I've sometimes thought of the internet as like deep space where the atmosphere between stars (read: e-interactions) can be quite cold, even as I find that many e-interactions are mere faux warmth.  The section's opening poem is entitled "Come Together" and yet its beginnings offer:

Snow like pale cephalopods drifts down
as it melts into our lapels we are all connected
into a shared dream where we
don't need our heirloom
mouths.

In imagining the future,
we once desired a ziggurat to crumble
into the oil spoilt sea while a muscled Austrian
demanded that we get inside the last
working chopper.
  
But everywhere around us, immaculate
snow dusts the blue pine trees, industry
is now invisible behind a wall
of woven passwords

and continues on to say

                there
is no time to reflect,

only react so lick my hot cortext, love,
now my imagination can be any nation I want

It's a future that, among other things, warns of Us becoming dysfunctional Social Media receptacles:

but this smart snow erases
    nothing, seeps everywhere
the search engine is inside us,
the world is our display

--from Engines within the Throne"

"Throne" in that title is quite apt for, as we all sit before our computers with our blogs, FBs, Twitters et al, do we not rule over our realities by creating those realities?  Yes.  But.  Just as our acts are monitored by the cookie-holding Big Brothers within the "net," there are powers behind the throne which are not synonymous with those seated on such "thrones".

Okay, that's partly as regards the content.  But these are poems and this work wouldn't be so effective if Hong's language wasn't so strong with what Matthea Harvey, one of the four blurbers, calls "lexical inventiveness."  For instance the rollicking "Ballad in A" which begins

A Kansan plays cards, calls marshal
a crawdad, that barb lands that rascal a slap;
that Kansan jackass scats,
camps back at caballada ranch.

Hangs kack, ax, and camp hat.
Kansans nag mad and rants cant bask,
cant bacchanal and garland a lass,
cant at last brag can crack Laws balls,

Kansans cantata rang at that ramada ranch,
Manana, Kansas snarls, Ill have an armada
and thwart Laws brawn,
slam Law a damn mass warpath.

This review would be boring if I just did what I sincerely want to do which is praise the results of Hong's focus.  I am moved, therefore, to also consider generally how content (what is or must be said) rubs up against the integrity (so to speak) of a poem.  That sentence would be difficult to explain without example.  So, for example, from "Adventures in Shangdu," one of the sections begin, but could be a stand-alone prose poem, as

Of the Mega C-City Supermarket

Whenever I am in the grocery store, I see an old man in a wheelchair who weeps in front of an aisle of energy drinks.

For me, that section or poem could end right there and it'd work and would be powerful.  As contrast, here it is in its totality from the book:

Of the Mega C-City Supermarket

Whenever I am in the grocery store, I see an old man in a wheelchair who weeps in front of an aisle of energy drinks. He is a resident of lopsided HIghrise 66, where they have placed all the octogenarians. Old man, I asked one day, why do you weep? The old man choked down his sob. Thats me, He said and pointed to the 100 or so energy drinks, each with the same iconic illustration of a young soldier in epaulettes raising his fist. The energy drink is called Power up! Thats just an illustration, I said. No, he said, those are my epaulettes. I was a young soldier during the Campaign and I found and hunted down all the surviving archaeologists. But when the revisionists took over, they sent me to a reeducation camp. I polished those epaulettes with my tears and buried them. And now, they want to remind me of my ways. Why must they remind me so many times?

Which is more effective?  Fortunately, the question is based on an artificial binary.  But that the question arises is welcome for presenting a tiny rip in a book that impressively unfolds.  The rip (ref. wabi sabi) makes the whole of the collection more ... endearing: the reader is not here just to listen to (as in being a passive recipient of) the poems but to engage with them, whether through a joust, square dance, a belly laugh, a thoughtful pause, or a shiver culminating in a deep wince.

*****

Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor.  But she is pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, a collaboration with j/j hastain, is reviewed by Susan Schultz at Jacket2 HERE, and by Amazon.com Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp HERE.  Another book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Thomas Fink in Press 1 and by Nicholas Spatafora in OurOwnVoice.


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