[REVIEW] Engine Empire, by Cathy Park Hong

A black Kindle Paperwhite with a white electronic book cover display, lying on a table in front of a wooden tray containing a half-drunk latte and a half-eaten chunk of cake

(Find it HERE.)

The bleached ruin of light lasts and lasts, no night/to repair our miinds, no white clip moon to give us rest. / Only pitiless noon where our sleep-starved consciousness/patters faintly behind our squinted eyelids. ~ Ballad of Tombstone Omaha

Have you ever read something and not been exactly sure if it was way over your head or just absolute chaos? Because that’s how I felt reading this poetry triptych by Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong, the vaunted author of Asian-American race relations treatise Minor Feelings. ⠀

There are some very evocative images and turns of phrase in these poems, which take us through three interconnected yet very different settings. Through the poet’s words we visit the lawless squalor of the American Wild West, the busy loneliness of modern day Shenzen, and a pale, remote far future, all boomtowns of their time. (The first section, about the gold rush West, was my favorite–for the imagery and cohesiveness as well as the sheer ugly shock of how it ends.) These places are sketched out with surprising amounts of detail and the poet has a flair for clever forms and theming that kept my eye interested in the pages while my brain was busy trying to keep up. I like poetry that tells stories, and the verses in this book definitely do that, wrapping them around very timely, pessimistic themes. It’s a vague, wild story that skitters all over the room before hopping in your literary lap and howling angrily, but it’s there. ⠀


Still, on the last page I couldn’t shake the feeling of WTF did I just read? I’m very picky about poetry and I’m admittedly on the denser side of poetry readers. Still, this collection feels like a chaos theory thesis in verse. If you flap the pages of the book too hard in Central Park on a Tuesday it might cause typhoons–it’s that chaotic. 😂 I feel like I get where the poet was trying to go with all of this–I’m just not sure if she got there without blowing out a tire and hitting a couple of potholes.⠀

Okay, enough of my bad metaphors. I didn’t dislike this collection–there’s something mind-expanding about its harsh weirdness and evocative language. But I didn’t love it either. A true 3-star rating and a “girl are you okay now after letting all that out?” to Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire.

(Hey beautiful people. Happy March. This is where I tell you that this blog has affiliate relationships with lovely sites like Bookshop, and if you click and purchase anything from a link here, a commission may be earned. It’s also where I tell you that if you read this poetry collection and need a hug afterwards, I’ll be happy to give you one.)

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