Engine Empire

Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong

Reviewed By

There remain a few shops, labels, and presses in the United States that embody DIY artistic independence in the best way, combining the intensity and existential tenacity of hardcore punk with the zine culture’s relentless focus on aesthetics, history, honesty and wonder. There remains a core network that calls to mind record sleeves glued and folded by hand in the kitchen of Dischord House (past), Alison Scarpulla photos of the Weaver brothers kneeling in cascadian meadows for promo photographs (present), and other anonymous moments, photographed and printed but never published, of metal shows played by generator in the forests outside Olympia, in the endless apocalyptic fields of Southern Illinois, and swallowed by the empty desert north of Albuquerque where the skywrack fish-eyes and coyotes scream beyond the reach of headlights (future).

Shops like Needles & Pens in San Francisco, Bluestockings in New York, Quimby’s in Chicago, and Family in LA pay the rent by selling handmade zines, local art pieces, and book upon book of underground visual art, radical politics, esoteric cultural analysis, and explorations of the furthest reaches of sexuality, philosophy, identity and history. They carry self-published novels with inscrutable characters, limited-pressing vinyl from evanescent labels, and catalogs from art shows too wild or bizarre for the traditional gallery.

But these are only a few nodes of a labyrinthine graph of shops whose purpose is the support of the DIY art and letters scenes, including Wonder Fair (KS), Issues Shop & RPS Collective (CA), Atomic Books (MD), Red Onion (DC), Reading Frenzy (OR), 1026 Collective (PA), Cinders (NY), and the list goes on. There are companies like RVCA which save floor space in their retail stores for handmade zines, and shops like Amoeba and Moe’s that carry Cometbus back issues, used copies of the “Against Everything” omnibus, the large-format Microcosm reissue of Scam #1-4, and later books by Lyle, Burian, Doris, Cometbus and Carver.

A zine fest pops up in a new city every year, craft fairs pack convention halls, and a new illegal art gallery, identifiable only by address or phone number, is born each week on a different desolate block of a different industrial city. And tying it all together like the fanzines of twenty years ago are countless art websites, music bloggers, and kids in coffeeshops inviting you to their show, kids on Valencia street stapling quartersheet posters to telephone poles, kids asking for window space at retail stores, asking for counter space, space anyway for a postcard…

All of which is to say: in an age of free and effortless media consumption, with up-to-the second internet trendspotting and algorithmically targeted advertising flashing across every surface, there is still a bustling underground culture of physical artifice, operating not only at the frontiers of financial viability but also at the limits of aesthetic and cultural norms, charging upstream into the fashion, music, academic and literary cultures, and thriving strongly despite every part of the culture of instant gratification.

II

Cathy Park Hong is a strong storyteller as well as conceptual poet, and as in her previous collection, Dance Dance Revolution, it’s easy to get lost in the thematically muscular poems in each of Engine Empire’s three distinct sections, reading the book as almost a set of lyrical short stories rather than poems.

We stop speaking. Our lips curl back so we’re just teeth.
Our Jim sings as if his body’s reed.
No thought flickers behind his linseed eyes.
Soon we’re the same,

A small parasite bore into our bellies
and memories slide out like gut. We kill
the few pickings of buffalo, butchering their huge
roddled heads, their liver tongues.

Blood bursts from Earth’s throat
in a mighty tornado and speckles itself across
the soil, hardening to ruby poppies.
A mighty empire arises
(“Fort Ballads”)

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.

Ghosts weed out their bodies,
whispering into sun’s paling twilight,
glazing into clouds and glass needled
rain shatters the dusted tundra,

Still they come, an eternal train of settlers,
chapels of ruby coppered hills flattened
by the agate ants of strangers.
(“Bowietown Ballads”)

But there is more at work in Engine Empire than narrative and craft. Novelist David Mitchell is a fan of Hong’s collection, and there are strong parallels between Engine Empire and his latest book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, one of which is the works’ shared basis in historical periods of “empire” in whatever form. Mitchell constructs his magnificent novel atop the history of Dutch trade in Nagasaki, while Hong traces the controlling forces of big-e Empire from violent settlers chasing the Gold Rush to the tyranny of market forces in a mythical/modern China and a mythical/super-modern SF Bay Area.

But the mighty empire is a false pond
in this eternal light where night never descends,
where we pass old travelers forever dying, their lamb-milk eyes
astonished by years passing as one long noon.

a legendary mining town drained of its ore
yet still, still the isolated men settle to dig
and dig, furrowing wilder
into the earth…
(“Fort Ballads”)

III

But if critical viewers of Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back witness Bob Dylan “inventing the modern idea of the mercurial rock star: combative, awkward, refusing to be caged by critics or fans” (Luke Lewis, NME), then what do readers of Hong’s book witness Our Jim accomplishing in Part I of Engine, besides reminding them of The Kid from Blood Meridian? If the “poetry collection” form in Empire is itself under attack, as suggested by Hong’s interest in inventing language (Dance Dance Revolution), the single-vowel or alphabet poems in Empire, or the sub-narratives concealed within the text itself, then what scaffolding underlies the Shangdu and Bay Area sections of Empire, lonely anecdotes of the generation which concealed its passions in quotes of quotes and photos of photos?

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. Like David Mitchell building a set of characters in Dutch Dejima in De Zoet from Kaempfer’s Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed and myriad history books, 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.

Similarly, when one approaches a staple-bound zine in 2012, watches a metal show or buys a Thou record from Gilead Media, many of the discrete elements (paper zine, vinyl record, hand-screened band shirts) would be instantly recognized by a fan two decades ago; much like the historical and cultural texts underlying Engine Empire, Nineties DIY and the K Records international “teenage underground” are historical facts, so the role of organizations like Bluestockings, Needles and Pens or Gilead could easily be that of curator of bygone curiosities, museums of the pre-internet golden age, selling the culture but not interacting with or furthering it. But similarly to Hong and Mitchell, who create strong new work on top of historical sources, these underground stalwarts not only curate but nurture and push the culture — they host live music from obscure local bands, they put together cutting edge art shows from contemporary artists, they publish books on their own imprints, press records on their own labels, and host festivals in their own cities.

So in the final reckoning, there’s a lot to like about Cany Park Hong’s Engine Empire, from the strands of poetry themselves (“Also, the new observatory’s been ransacked for its myths, / the telescope shattered to a million bifocals” -Year of the Pig) to the more conceptual wordplay poems and narrative alchemy, to the deeper exploration of aesthetic-bending work built by the artist on the ramparts of historical events. The David Mitchell co-sign on the front cover and the illustration of steps descending into a geometric rabbit hole are accurate clues to the book’s content: read Empire, read Jacob de Zoet, read Mishima’s Spring Snow, and then re-read Empire– you’ll journey to the frontiers of these aesthetic conceits, and the frontiers of your own conception of the underlying history.


Nate East writes poetry and fiction for Cowans Gap zine in San Francisco. His work has also appeared in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, SoandSo Magazine and elsewhere, and he can be found online at www.nateeast.com. More from this author →