Engine Empire

Engine Empire: Poems BY Cathy Park Hong. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 96 pages. $24.

The cover of Engine Empire: Poems

Cathy Park Hong’s poetry can be dark, depressing, grimly prophetic, and fun—often all at once. In Engine Empire, her third book, she examines how governments and companies use information to control people by throwing her voice in all sorts of surprising directions, assuming the personae of very odd, alliteratively bent characters from a fictional past and an imagined (yet possible) future whose experiences warn us about the realities of the present.

The book manages to be an entertaining read, even as it says stark and haunting things about race, love, technology, and the capacities of language to hide or reveal unwelcome truths. Hong has thought hard about the implications of her vocabulary: When she rattles off something seemingly funny and a bit cynical—such as “The snow is still beta. / You feel the smart snow monitoring you, / uploading your mind so anyone can access your content”—it’s not hard to sense, teeming under the surface of those lines, a deep unease about the ease with which individuals are turning their brains over to Apple, Google, and Amazon, having no idea what’s being signed away in the privacy policy.

Hong has an incredible ear, evident most prominently in a playful series of poems devoted to vowel sounds (“Ballad in I,” “Ballad in A”), part of a group of poems set in the Old West called “Ballad of Our Jim,” in which a band of cowboys adopts a singing mascot named Jim, who inspires a series of musical poems recounting adventures:

At dawn, marshal stalks that ranch,
packs a gat and blasts Kansan’s ass
and Kansan gasps, blasts back.
A flag flaps at half-mast.

Hong’s having fun here, but it’s not all play. Taken together, these poems show us how her stories—of duels, heroes, and villains—are packed deep into the meanings and histories of our words. These are the stories we want to tell ourselves, that some people are good, some are bad, and somebody’s got to take the fall at the end. Buried in nursery rhymes, westerns, and the other seeming silliness hides not-so-subtly-coded racism and stereotyping:

One Chinaman gets knifed fer being what he is.
Another strikes it rich and apes us
wearing silver spurs and possum chaps,
dancing a spry little jig.

That “fer” is particularly sinister. The lightheartedness in these lines prepares us for the subtler displays in the book’s other two sequences. In “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!” we’re treated to a time-twisting tour of China, where ancient culture (Shangdu is Kublai Kahn’s mythic Xanadu) is swallowed in the tidal wave of rapid industrialization. Now, “Boomtown is Shangdu’s brand name,” begins a prose poem called “Of the Old Ukrainian Embassy That Will Be Torn Down for the Hanger Factory.” “Everyday,” the poem continues, “2,000 more people flood into Shangdu to work in our 2,000 factories. Do you know why? Shangdu is booming!” Such enthusiasm makes the heart sink, and recalls the current controversy over factory conditions at Apple’s manufacturing partners in China.

It all comes together in the last, and best, sequence, “The World Cloud,” in which Hong imagines a couple living in an Internet-overrun future where nobody’s mind has escaped subtle corporate rewiring. It’s a world in which

You wake up from a nap.
Your mouth feels like a cheap acrylic sweater.
You blink online and 3-D images hopscotch around you.
A telenovela actress hides under your lampshade.

Here the wit gets darker—the language of this future is a bad joke, prepacked with ad copy. In Hong’s digital world, not so different from our own, thought itself is colonized, dangerous. While there have always been lots of writers warning us about the corruptibility of language in the wrong hands, few others have made an unbrave new world such a pleasure to discover.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of Cradle Book: Stories and Fables (Boa Editions, 2010). His poetry collection To Keep Love Blurry will be published this Fall.