At Play in the Fields of Language: The Poetry of Cathy Park Hong (Part Two)

Cathy Park Hong (photo by Nancy Hong)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the poetry of Cathy Park Hong. The first installation, “At Play in The Fields of Language: The Poetry of Cathy Park Hong (Part One),” was published Saturday, December 1, 2012. 


Engine Empire (2012) is divided into three discrete sections or, perhaps more accurately, three self-sustaining worlds, each with its own invented languages.

In each section Hong utilizes radical forms and devices — a list, an abededarian, a lipogram — to propel her poems out of the lyric torpor so many other poets embrace. The language is volatile, undergoing metamorphosis and extreme pressure. Tremors of discomfort suffuse throughout the music of Hong’s poems:

juddering slam of hammering jack,
humming sussurations of catamarans,
aerosol striations of welder’s firecrack,
then a caracas of fist cracks

The fact is — Hong doesn’t repeat herself and she sounds like no one else.

*   *   *

Chronologically speaking, the sections are the Wild West (“BALLAD OF OUR JIM”); a contemporary Chinese boomtown (“SHANDU, MY ARTFUL BOOMTOWN”); and a near future world in which the Internet, in the form “smart snow,” is being incorporated into everyone’s mind (“THE WORLD CLOUD”):

The snow is still beta.
You feel the smart snow monitoring you,
Uploading your mind so that anyone can access your content.

Despite being about the past, present and future, the three worlds mirror each other. Marginal characters grasping for security and material success populate all of them (“Jim,” “Orright,” and “an undersized girl with a tic”).  At the same time, Hong’s characters are neither ethnically pure nor at ease in their skin (their ethnicity). Beginning with “”BALLAD OF OUR JIM,” the following lines are found in one of the book’s three sections.

Our Jim’s a two-bit half-breed.

I am covetous of you and curse your birth order.

As if the ancient laws of miscegenation
Are still in place

While the sections are discrete, Hong will make future and past intersect. “Quattrocento” is included in the last section. In the poem, whose title evokes the Italian Renaissance and the rise of perspective and humanism, Hong writes:

          That all towns now are rest stops
to a vanishing point
We’re all going to the clouds,
haunted by a gobbet
of flesh marooned
on the glass surface of image

If the vanishing point once indicated the world beyond (heaven or transcendence), it no longer does. Towns are rest stops on the way to our unavoidable disappearance.  Hong is a materialist. She recognizes that words are things made up of distinct components (sounds), which can be detached and reassembled. She is working in a largely unpopulated area previously explored by Frank Kuenstler and Amelia Rosselli, who called herself a “poet of research.”


In “BALLAD OF OUR JIM,” Hong writes “Abecedarian Western”  (which employs an  alphabetically arranged sequence) and uses a lipogram constraint (which sets a restriction on the letters the writer may use) in “Ballad in O,” “Ballad in A,” and “Ballad in I.” In each of these poems, every word must have the letter indicated in the poem’s title.  The first stanza of “Ballad in A” reads thus:

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

The restraints underscore that language is as much trap as it is a liberation, that there is no such thing as free expression. We live inside of language (or, in some cases, languages) and cannot step outside of its universe.  Heaven and resurrection are not waiting for us.

The obvious precedents for “BALLAD OF OUR JIM” are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, both of which are thoroughly masculine worlds.


One thing that strikes me about Hong’s work is her repeated refusal to mythologize her experience, while focusing, at the same time, on the very commonplace desire of various groups and individuals to explain their specialness. She is on the other end of the spectrum from Li Young-Lee, who never fails to mention in interviews that his father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong, that he knew hundreds of Chinese poems by heart and read the King James Bible to his children.  Lee is suggesting, of course, that these experiences have endowed him with a deeper understanding of humanity, have singled him out and made him special.

Even in her first book, Translating Mo’um, Hong rejected this option, which an earlier generation of ethnic writers had embraced, picking up instead on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982) and especially Cha’s Dictee (1982) and its use of multiple languages. In Hong’s first book, familiar types such as the mother or father never coalesce into a large-than-life presences or heroic figures. Instead, Hong writes:

My mother said, “If you eat lying down, you’ll grow hair on your crotch.

In contrast to ethnic writers who use words to signify cultural difference, Hong employs them to evoke the linguistic mayhem that has become even more widespread with the advance of globalization. Her poems come from listening and reading. She hears words as a string of detachable sounds, recognizing that they could become more than one word. And it is out of this hearing, this acute sensitivity to the inevitable mutation of one word sounding almost like another, that she concocts poems.  Rather than trying to assimilate and write in Standard English  — which she can clearly do extremely well — she recognizes that to do so is a form of mimicry, and goes a step further in poems such as “Ballad in I”.

His grim instinct wilting
Dispiriting Jim, climbing hill’s hilt,
Drifting Jim, sighing in this lilting,
sinking light.


In Engine Empire, more so than in her previous two books, Hong brings in pop culture, increasing the scope of her references and allusions. I imagine that in addition to housing many books of poetry and fiction, Hong’s library contains Baedekers and tour guides, lots of history books, and dictionaries to many languages. She gets us to consider things we might learn from. There is no standard pool of knowledge to draw from.

In “A Little Tete a tete,” which is addressed to “Coleridge,” her “affectionate friend,” Hong mentions such media luminaries as Nick Faldo, Annika Sorenstam, and Tiger Woods.  Working in different forms, she moves from what we might call a transparent language to a patois that is largely the poet’s invention.  In contrast to those who write as authorities or as witnesses, Hong invokes the poet as a ventriloquist. Ventriloquism, we might want to remember, was originally a religious practice that had roots in the oracular tradition at Delphi.  In Translating Mo’um, the poet wrote about a figure that “spoke with the wooden/clack of a puppet’s mouth.” In Engine Empire, that puppet has become so much more and so much else. It is a magnificent achievement. I have only one suggestion, which is that in order to move beyond the settings of her series of poems — and they ultimately become a kind of restraint — Hong will have to accept randomness. It is certainly within her power to do so.

Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire (2012) is available from W. W. Nortion & Company, Inc.

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