Breaking down the Engine: A Review of Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire

Engine_Empire_softcover.inddEngine Empire
by Cathy Park Hong
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
96 pages / $15.95  Buy from Norton or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s political landscape teems with critical topics; the economy, women’s rights and our diplomatic relations with China are but a few. These issues carry catch phrases and slogans that are disseminated to the general public via media and pop culture. We, the public, are inundated with instant clichés at every turn: television, magazines and sometimes even in literature and poetry. However, those of us that enjoy poetry expect subtlety, skill and guile because when it comes to poetry slogans and political banter simply will not do. Enter Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire a collection that speaks volumes on “the issues” without declaiming from one single soapbox.

Hong’s latest collection moves through the Civil War era, modern day China and the future as it conveys a startling idea: that human greed, ignorance and apathy are not necessarily resolved by technology but helped along by it.

Engine Empire has received a good amount of praise. The collection is full of imagination and creativity. However, something must also be said about its authenticity and the way in which the book makes its social commentary. The diction in “Ballad of Our Jim,” the first section of the book, is pure Mark Twain. Hong creates music that is unforced, hard at its colloquial best and authentic, “A horse hair tightrope tied from one barrack to another, / and the crowd jeers and rails / til a rouge-doused banker in a stove pipe hat / is pushed from the balcony, trembling against the ledge.” In an interview with the Paris Review Hong described some of her research for the book and for the opening chapter, “I read Zane Gray, Larry McMurtry, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner’s Light in August. I had a couple of wonderful Old West dictionaries.”

The aforementioned “Jim,” separated from his family during a raid, is the chapter’s silent protagonist, moving along the frontier with a band of brothers; a rag tag family of gold rush fevered low lives.

We lost a brother, axed in the head by a rancid trapper,
so we pluck one boy from the litter,
lure him out with hen fruit and fresh violet marrow.
We pounce him. Christen him Jim.

The journey that follows is a microcosm of manifest destiny and capitalism’s pitfalls; greed, racism, ignorance, disregard for human life. By the time we get to the collection’s second chapter, “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!” the parallels to even more modern day socio-economic boons are clear.

“Shangdu” is a Chinese town where mass production provides steady work, there is no shortage of people vying for those jobs, and surveillance cameras keep tabs on the population.

It is true that the fried prawn vendor tilted his surveillance camera so it
caught nothing but the sun. Officials executed him after they watched
the useless footage of a sun bobbing up and down for 100 days.

There is also a love story in “Shangdu” as the chapter’s protagonist falls for a young painter who reproduces paintings.  The poem “Of the Old Colonial Dutch Quarters” does everything but say “Made in China.”

…But I too have an obsession. He is one of the painters who
works in the Rembrandt factory. He paints 5 Rembrandt self-portrait
painting s a day which I hear are sold to rich town houses and hotels
in a place called Florida. He is renowned as the fastest painter in
Shangdu and he has completed 10,000 Rembrandt self-portraits.

Whenever my wife sees me tapping away on one of my Apple products, she doesn’t miss the opportunity to remind me they were produced under inhumane conditions in China. The reality in Shangdu is that for every person who would leave such a job there are hundreds more ready to take it; couple that with the endless lines (outside the Apple store for starters) of voracious American consumers and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle. Yet Hong did not write Engine Empire to overtly state these facts. Her work is to present the cruelty of empire, its situations, occasional humor and lack of resolution or redemption. Again from the Paris Review, Hong says, “I don’t create redemption for my characters. The narrative of redemption is a false and lazy conceit in art. Redemption through the act of violence is avoiding culpability.”

I am culpable for not being able to put down my iPad or log off the Internet. Perhaps that’s what the final section of the book takes the most honest look at, our addiction to technology. The heart of the final section, “The World Cloud,” also explores the possible loss of identity becoming a loss of the most intimate of possessions, memories. In Hong’s vision of the future access to the new Internet or “white snow,” a place where a user can access anyone’s memories, only requires a blink of the eyes. The following lines are from the poem “Engines Within the Throne.”

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

The strongest poems in this section detail the morbid consequences of this invasive and damaging technology. The deterioration of relationships, vegetative breakdowns and general listlessness caused by a constant connection to the memories of others and by their access to the user’s memories are compelling. The following lines are from “A Visitation.”

You feel the smart snow monitoring you,
uploading your mind so anyone can access your content.
Circuits cross and you hear a one-sided chat:
Da! Da! Da!
You tap in the air for the volume control and listen to Ravel.
You refresh your feed.  Nothing from him.

“Fable of the Last Untouched Town” is the final poem in the book. An apocalyptic voyage a lá Mad Max it is the state of humankind at the end of Engine Empire. There is none of the aforementioned redemption Hong loathes, only consequence.

We are strong, not afraid to betray.
For instance, we rush our old.

I wrap my mother in blankets:
It’s time now Mother.
I’m not ready.
Oh but your mind is going, your tongue
is loosening you will start to talk we planned this.
I’m not ready to go.

***

Roberto Carlos Garcia‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in 5 AM Magazine, Connotation Press- An Online Artifact, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poets & Artists Magazine, and others. His chapbook, Amores Gitanos (gypsy loves) is available through Cervena Barva Press. A native New Yorker, he now lives and works in New Jersey.  Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry Translation from Drew University. His website is www.robertocarlosgarcia.tumblr.com.