Prophecy tends to be dangerous for its prophets: remember the addled, broken spasms of those young women at Delphi or ancient shamans gone wild from solitude, raving hermits deep in dense thickets of white birch. It’s a tricky line of work. Engine Empire, the new collection of poems by Cathy Park Hong, is an attempt to capture the fervor and spirit of sweeping change, and show that what we call progress, is just prophecy fulfilled.
Hong is an interesting specimen; a poet keenly keyed in to the rhythms and sound of languages both real and invented, but also deeply in thrall to narrative structure. Empire consists of three sequences of poems, one past, one present and one future, all telling a story of people and places in the midst seismic shifts – men raiding the West while the Civil War rages behind them, a Chinese city changing from a backwater into the modern boomtown, and a society coming to terms with technology that invalidates individual experience.
The first sequence, “The Ballad of Our Jim,” is Hong’s Desert Theology; it follows a we of outlaw “brothers,” as they charge through the barren mine towns and empty, petrified forts of the American West, “going the wrong di-rection” away from the populated, war-ravaged east coast. “The whole country is in a duel,” they chant together in the opening line, “and we want no part of it.” As the tribe wanders through the purgatorial wastes, it soon finds its Moses; in a “fort of ragged cedar posts/ rigged together with rodent sinews” whose post are manned only by boys too young to have gone east and enlisted with their fathers, the brothers kidnap one of the children, a half native orphan, to replace a lost companion: “We pounce him. Christen him Jim.”
“But our adapted boy’s head done turned.” Jim is an Old Testament prophet for a Old Testament setting; he’s an easy shot with a rifle – killing antelope, buffalo, lawmen or Indians – on command without flinching or missing and he “sings as if all his body’s a reed” of mothers strangling their newborns as vengeance and other visions of doom. As his compatriots slowly wither from the sun, or thirst, or hunger, or a bullet, Jim keeps up his “infernal ballad” of malaria, of vultures, or terrible grace. Jim is the chaos of change: both an unwitting innocent and preternaturally gifted killer, both capable of senseless violence and of deep empathy.
As the brothers slide further away from civilization and morality, their relationship with Jim teeters dangerously. They begin to rely on this hawk-eyed, addle-pated child to do their dirty work, clean up their messes, and finish their bar fights. After the brothers rape the grieving sister of a Miwok killed while caught trying to steal a horse, the cracks in their fraternity begin to show,
Our Jim’s gone husk.
He warns us of our weakness.
As Pip chanted verses of doom for the deaf Pequod, Our Jim seems to trill songs of death for us all. After a vicious final confrontation, Our Jim rides off. Alone, starving, hands caked with dried blood, he has his final vision: a beautiful Mexican girl, who provokes the first hint of human feeling from him. She’s wreathed in an apocalyptic aura of katydids, the insects stripping every shred of life from the earth en masse. He shouts to the blackened sky and charges into the maelstrom, but his words are swallowed as the insects “drop down to the earth, / clumping on every growth, / sucking sweat from all tooled handles.” The girl disappears into the tempest, his one hopeful vision devoured by an animal plague.
The prosody of this sequence is exquisite; Hong is no stranger to writing dialect – her first two collections were written almost exclusively in accents both real and invented – and she breathes life into this world by skillfully employing the tine’s colloquial ramble – while remarkably avoiding all the common missteps that can leave dialectical writing stiff and/or hokey. Instead, her language is flexible and inventive: a church is “a beet-red adobe acropolis with a guano-whitened belfry”, and “lips curl back so we’re just teeth” as the sun desiccates the outlaws’ bodies. Hong writes rhythm as easily as breathing; the verse pounds the dry dirt as horses swoop across the plains; it warbles and vibrates as Our Jim gasps out a song; and it crawls and stumbles as the end eventually reaches our riders. Yet, with all the intent put into the language here, the effect is of glossolalia: a thrum of verbiage that melds into a thing greater than the sum of the words – into a feeling, into a trance, maybe even into a prophecy.
The second suite, entitled “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!”, is a meditation on the price paid when progress is attempted solely for its own sake. The piece, an olio of ballads and prose poems, abandons “The Ballad of Our Jim”’s shamanic fervor, replacing it with staid tragicomedy, blending to create a bleakly funny travel guide to the titular town, that stands as a wider metaphor for “progress”. Hong offers an impressionist’s view of the city, a newly built outpost of factories where “twenty years ago, there was nothing but a gas station and a few scattered pig farms”, and now stands a half-built state that’s the consequence of men not understanding the difference between the perceived benefits of progress and its actual benefits, and a culture abandoning its past while not fully committing to its future.
The centerpiece of the cycle is a sequence of prose poems describing a condo complex called Lucky Highrise Apartments and its surroundings – shells of newly built structures in the heart of the waxing Shangdu. Each building is unfinished; the narrator lives in Lucky Highrise Apartment 88, which is “without its last wall, gaping out to a panoramic view of Shangdu’s river”. Trash whips into the windowless apartments from the street below, and the sound of the 2,000 factories across the river “can inspire you or drive you mad.” No wonder it’s a destination for the suicidal. Every action in Shangdu is a paean to the poorly-thought-out: after magnetizing cars and suspending far above the street in protest, striking crane operators are “conveniently disappeared” by the government – before they can set the vehicles back on the ground, leaving a metallic canopy yawning over the city streets.
And with their life built on a promised but hazy future, Shangdu’s people become foreigners to their own past. Newlyweds are accosted and spit upon on their wedding day for adhering to the traditional ceremonies in a modern world. An old man sobs in the grocery store while staring at the mascot for an energy drink that makes him recall his years in the army. “We are not of culture where curious strangers can strike up a conversation,” the narrator laments, unable to reach the man she’s interested in, even though they sit next to each other on a packed city bus.
Yet, Hong’s progress, like actual progress, is irresistible: “Now that Shangdu is booming they have rounded all the cripples and exiled them to a remote outpost up north. That outpost is also beginning to boom.” The future is coming, she seems to say, it’s up to us whether or not we take the past with us.
With “The World Cloud” – the last of the three sequences – Hong turns toward the future. And to her prophecy.
The future she imagines is a world covered in an information-transmitting “snow”, a physical conduit that dusts the world, allowing complete unfettered access to global interactive internet. Reality is able to be completely augmented; walking in the park, our narrator “[fills] in the the balding grass and [rubs] the offensive drawings” from a tree. Ads are targeted directly to the user by gleaning information from her subconscious: “you look at the toaster and think taco / an ad pops up in the air for a trip to Cabo San Lucas.” When she sees a flower she doesn’t recognize a voice immediately intones “Honey Suckle.” She laments that she doesn’t know anything anymore. Here, men and women are shuffled off to doom not by the harsh realities of nature, or the overwhelming pressure toward progress, but because of their own self-indulgence.
Woven through the piece is a very human story of a couple trying to live their lives within this new world. The narrator grapples with the ennui that comes with having complete world knowledge within her grasp at all times (a power, which interestingly contains the ability to “go spelunking in anyone’s mind” at will) and navigates a world filled to the brim with stimuli.
but this smart snow erases,
nothing, seeps everywhere
the search engine is inside us,
the world is our display
“The World Cloud” is a little harder to warm up to than either of the other two sections; in a lot of ways it reads as typical techno-disaster movie stuff, all thinly abstracted social commentary and a sword of moral judgment hanging very heavily over the whole cycle. But the writing is unfailing top-shelf – again a blend of verse and prose poetry (this time it’s a sort of anaphoric “My Lover” thing, which is always welcome) – and the piece has a very powerful overarching tone. It captures the true paralysis of depression; when you’re depressed, you don’t feel depressed; you just feel normal. The days just keep going past. Our unnamed woman longs for a past before this total integration, but she doesn’t rebel against the present. And her husband, “half-transparent with depression”, draws out his suicide, bleeding his conscious fully into the Cloud and severs all connection he has to reality. His last message to his wife before he fully drifts off into unreality,
I am by a pond and a coyote is eating a frog. It’s amazing.
Deep in his own drift of digital snow, he too has gone husk.
Engine Empire winds up speaking mainly about inevitabilities. Men butcher each other because how else is there to act after riding all day under the brutal sun, tongue nagging from thirst, hunger burrowed in the gut and nothing more solid to look forward to than the dim promise of pebbles of gold panned from a dwindling tributary. A city forsakes it’s past and present for the promise of a future out of fear of being left behind for good. And personhood is subsumed into the whole because, well, once you’ve had unfettered access to every strand of knowledge, there’s no going back. Maybe it’s a poor prophet who only sees things that are already inevitable, or maybe prophecy’s true purpose is not to tell of what’s to come, but to show clearly what already is.
Publisher: W.W. Norton