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.
But underlying the narrative is strong poetic style and an eagle eye for searingly memorable imagery; throughout Engine Empire, there are flashes of truly inspirational writing atop the bedrock of extremely solid poetry ... Because since Hong’s storytelling instinct is so strong, it’s tempting to read each the section of Engine Empire at face value– as narrative poems– but this misses another crucial facet the book. The point isn’t just that Hong built an emotionally authentic very-near-future in the third section of Empire, but also that she chose the subject matter itself, culled from blog posts, privacy policies, and post-cyberpunk tropes from the late nineties ... Hong’s role as artist is also a dual one of both synthesis of the existing ideas and history of a place-time and then creation of new narratives on top of this history.
Hong’s poetry creates whole worlds, instead of being satisfied with representing a small sliver of this one or this I. The book’s second part describes an imaginary Chinese city called Shangdu that mirrors its contemporary real-life counterparts: factories, workers, pollution, and the dream of purchasing a piece of paradise as summed up in the title of the poem 'Market Forces Are Brighter Than the Sun.' The language and imagery in this section are as inventive as ever (including a satirical riposte to Coleridge’s 'Kubla Khan'), even if the tone is a bit more serious ... Engine Empire ends (while the engine of empire grinds on) with a lyrical suite of poems conjuring an increasingly virtual reality in direct proportion to the destruction of our shared material one.
She isn’t looking to capture the past, present, and future so much as she’s taking her turn at restitching the crazy quilt of associations that make up our hyper-informed view of everything around us. Part of what makes that worthwhile is Hong’s ability to turn her language into more than pastiche, developing styles of writing that feel dense with the historical richness of the English language ... This is especially true in the first section, where the bent idiom of our imagined Wild West anchors her mythy serenades ... And yet: If Hong is pessimistic about humanity, she strikes me as a remarkably happy pessimist, one who finds the absurdity of people and culture endlessly fascinating, which leads to a persistent sense that the value of the book may not line up with its values ... Hong ends Engine Empire with a move that’s both brilliant and frustrating ... For some readers, that dissatisfaction may feel like an honest and necessary conclusion. But others may feel that kind of dissatisfaction needs no reiteration, and there’s just as much honesty in looking for ways to sustain ourselves.