The immensity of Cathy Park Hong’s poems measures something both like realism and science fiction for 21st-century globalization. The present dilates in her poems with a capacious past—worldly, cinematic. Check this passage from her new book, Engine Empire (New York: Norton, 2012), from “Adventures in Shangdu”: 

The contractors were in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world so they rushed off before they finished building Highrise 88. So here is my apartment without its last wall, gaping out to a panoramic view of Shangdu’s river. 

This new work recalls not too many things, but the post-socialist Chinese cinema of Jia Zhang-Ke is certainly one of them. Paving and pollution and half-completed buildings matter to her songs, as do the aesthetics of older social orders’ disappearance. More explicitly so than those of Myung Mi Kim and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, two of her chief influences, Hong’s poems spin, circle around, remember, veer through the global totality, even snorkel and golf, or eat street food while reporting a suicide from a determinate locale. Their journalistic rootedness feels the separating walls, crawls the roads of violent “progress.” The mood of the voices she’s doing is often enough bemused, frightened into cheer. The concrete jungle of the current geopolitical conjuncture becomes “hyena babble and apish libretto,” as she put it in her first book, Translating Mo’um.

Poetry’s multiformity (its run from speech to song, from rhythmic ballads to prose paragraphs), rather than fashionable generic indeterminacy, enlivens the formal choices in her first two, quite contrasted, books. Translating Mo’um appeared a decade ago, evincing “History’s thorax considerably / cracked.” Alive in many directions, that volume’s self-scrutinizing, cultural-encounter mode was effaced by the persona poems of her next collection, Dance Dance Revolution, which brought alive the polyvocal “guide” of an altered world, one framed by the popular political struggles of 60s and 80s South Korea. History’s changes and transitions, in both epoch and conjuncture, what Fredric Jameson calls “the poetics of social forms”have Hong’s language edgily indebted to an emergent, “untested” vernacular. Hong's new book speaks toward or into music like John Berryman (whose Henry has the final word in the book’s central section), but with a politics or sense of cultural disappearance and a tendency toward emplotment closer to Jean Toomer’s Cane. It is written in what I think of as a postmodern historical style. Novelesque pronouncements occasionally echo through its pages: “Hail the industrial age, hail.” With a line like that from the second, destined-to-be-classic section of the book, “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown,” the poetry marks out how much of the last 150 years of capitalist industry is still with us (how about that heat wave?), how we’ve just now urgently lived through the most sweeping period of industrialization in history in the emergence of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Hong keeps this symbolic infrastructure of recent times in place for the last two sections of the book—her poems making history recognizable but collapsing and rearranging it according to the subjective confusion we endure:                   

 

                              I write in direct osmosis 

         from writer to reader no bric-a-brac 

                              wall of words blown 

         by tech giants who say choice 

 

                             is a tool like a blade of grass

 

She scrambles the codes of the social relations and their transmogrification under the rule of the value formhere in a restless switching of levels from startups to Whitman.

In Engine Empire’s first section, “Ballad of Our Jim,” we’re back to the west of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Instead of the Judge, though, there’s Jim, a “two-bit half-breed,” adopted into something like the narrator’s posse. The time is the civil war (“The whole country is in a duel and we want no part of it”) and “we” begin with a retreat and fugitive flight for Cali: ":We’re getting to California. We ain’t got time to enlist.” (That initial colon seems hard to parse, except for its knowing wink baring the device.) The passages that follow give off some sheen of American imperialism’s disregard for all who come under its helicopter blades:

                                still the isolated men settle to dig 

                   and dig, furrowing wilder 

                   into the earth.

Death is omnipresent along this American road to capitalism. The narrative is a cut-up, a montage of snippets. Indeed, the violence of the initial accumulation of capitalism in formerly northern Mexican territories threatens to do in the text’s pretensions to story. A landscape cleared for industrial-scale cultivation already trembles with the madness of civilization: “from all the bedlamite mouths rising.” Through the jump cuts and isolate instances Jim becomes a kind of protector figure before turning on the band that adopted him. Unglued, he’s deranged by events.

A mongrelized “west” emerges in this playfully rigorous, nail-tough section. Day or night, but mostly night, it intoxicates us with a sensuous, sonorous world, a “procession of wild, piss-eyed lobos.” Man" is represented, in the two narrative “ballads” that anchor it, by a cadre of hollow-cheeked shadows wandering a landscape of “boomtowns,” many already abandoned by the 1860s. The form of the book also becomes plain here: a ground-clearing poem of emplotment followed by lyric stand alones, variations. In “Ballad” these take the form of “noulipian” (new+oulipo) lipograms. Several poems recall, in fact, Christian Bok’s Eunoia, composed as they are with the use of a single vowel (“Work morn to moondown”). Hong executes raids on various aesthetic movements, plundering from disparate “formalists” here, from lyric abstraction there, endowing sometimes empty “techniques” with the significance of contrapuntal actuality big as day-trading is long.

In the aforementioned second section on “Shangdu,” we glimpse a different transformation of the poetics of social forms—history’s modes of production and cultural revolutions. Not Marx’s “primitive accumulation” of American lands, but the depeasantization of the countryside necessary for urban expansion of industry. Here China, or “Shangdu” rather, is in the midst a battering from waves of new subjective experience brought about by the transition from peasant socialism to new pop-up cities like Szenchen (which is referred to in the book-jacket commentary). For me, “Shangdu” as name suggests a geographically distant montage of behemoth Chinese urbanism: part Shanghai, the historical city turned high-tech capital, and part Chengdu, home of Apple manufacturer Foxconn (“then a caracas of fist cracks / after workers slurp off their goggled specs”) and located in the province of Sichuan, epicenter of southwestern China's sunbelt, geographically close to some of the much-maligned Bo Xilai’s political experiments in Chongqing at assuaging the rural-urban divide. The name “Shangdu” is indicative of the Hong mode: scramble, collapse, and reinvent the codes. Remote outpost as new epicenter is one form the dilated present takes in Hong’s work:

                                                                 Shots

               of Crown Royal for all! Dear natty vessel

               of chemical dye, dear floating factory

               of cleaning supplies, let me buy

               you out...

Or we see a world whose port containerization of cargo both does and does not resemble our own:

When the officials ignored their strike, the crane operators decided to be more aggressive. They worked all night. The next morning, train carriages, buses, limousines, bicycles, boats, and even helicopters swing lazily in the wind, magnetized by cranes. 

The postemployment silicon capitalism of the book’s final section, “The World Cloud,” indicates an absent future of the capitalist system itself. Subjective aphanasis (“half-transparent / with depression” or “You don’t know anything anymore”) drifting across “the data air” finds a “fugitive voice / whispering enough, leave me / in a company retreat”; but don’t worry “we are all connected / into a shared dream where we / don’t need our heirloom mouths.” A book of precise and ambiguating line breaks, Empire Engine, also demands a resistant spirit for the reading process. The book’s concluding poem, “Fable of the Last Untouched Town,” begins, “We are the only hole in a world of light.” Some days it feels that way, especially reading a book of poetry that summons up (for this resistance reader) solidaristic coordination of struggles with “Shangdu.” Such an act (imagined here) would represent a real development in the growth of global resistance to capital: the Oakland and west coast port blockades coordinated with Foxconn and other workers’ struggles across China’s river deltas and sunbelt manufacturing zones—an image of the future.

 

 

The title of Los Angeles-based poet, novelist, playwright, and painter Will Alexander’s new book from City Lights, Compression and Purity, evokes the twin signposts of the classical aesthetic, seemingly an odd fit for the most noted living American surrealist poet, whose language leaves ordinary utterance light years behind. A casual reader needs some initiation into the enigmatic and charged phrasings of Alexander’s remarkable poetry, and this new City Lights volume, deftly edited by Garrett Caples, provides a great chance for critical fusion with this singular style. Though not a selected volume, the prose “My Interior Vita” strikes a similar note with his early “Letters to Rosa”: “...by the time I read a book on Rimbaud some seven years later I felt a definite relation between his inner experience and my own. Close to finishing the book I found myself writing my first poem.” That Rimbaud book is Starkie’s famed biography, and the dissipation into the matter of language Alexander’s work effects is a transpersonal season in limbo, where man inhabits an astral earth, and fire never stops erasing itself in an asubjective phenomenology of spirit. In experimental, minority, and some African-American poetry circles, Alexander’s work, ignited by the lines of torsion inherent to an LA-life influence of symbolism and surrealism as well as the multicultural and Afrocentric postmodernism of the Black Arts movement, has something like canonical status; with a recent book from New Directions, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, a new novel, Diary as Sin, as well as a teeming multitude of unpublished transporter-beam-like lines in various manuscripts, he may be on the cusp of the widest recognition. Alexander’s species of LA avant-garde, spiritually close to Eric Dolphy, in addition to a host of literary influences (Paz, Breton, Cesaire, Vallejo, Artaud), seems implacable—but there’s a lingering musicality to his hardscrabble, linguistically muscular eloquence, however lofty the abstraction. Andrew Joron: “The explosion of his language engulfs almost every continent and sweeps away the categories that separate poetry and philosophy, myth and science.” This postmodern de-differentiation of these specialized fields calls for explanation and previous volumes have included glossaries of terms, and while the diction continuously demonstrates an immense learning, all deployed in rhetorically expansive syntax, what’s most striking is the broad and austere cast of Alexander’s mind. In one breath the past is Kemet and Nubia, the future in the next is Fukushima and the revolution of the mind needed to respond to techno-scientific collapse.

One of Alexander’s singular stylistic moves is a long-held fermata of reiterative apposition, stalled out for that incipient, even “Dolphic” (Nathaniel Mackey’s coinage) drone. I’ll quote parts of an extended passage from “The Blood Penguin,” the first poem in the collection:

                       I am never to be

                       the human boy genius

                       the archivist

                       the bartered child contending with study [...]

                       I am seen as piacular

                       as specter as both standing & freezing

                       being of some other form

                       from some other planet

A demiurge of the impossible image, this humorously terrifying creature’s dramatic monologue proceeds out in what Norma Cole calls Alexander’s “expanding forms of predictory anaphora.” His prophetic poetry is everywhere wringing lilies from the acorn of this flailing capitalist totality, the invisible dimension of the checkout counter’s downcast eyes. Cutting through clichés of the superincumbent linguistic order with thickets of Latinate phrasing and another technique of phrase-making, the twice-modified outward-pushing noun (“as floating ocular ravine”), his poetry retains an unequivocal tone of ontological emergency, “becoming the conduit for a primal and oracular speech” (Joron), that conduit through which speech first emerged out of absolute necessity. Even when he’s trying to tell you something about himself, this “grown man learning how to speak” (Amiri Baraka) does so in a fearlessly icono-clastic, even astrological mode: “I was born under Leo, under its signpost of heat, and what has evolved from such coloration is a verbal momentum always magnetized to the uranic.” There’s what I think of as classical surrealism (and for Apollinaire’s famous coinage read super-addition to the real) in certain passages, summoning the bygone and hazardous bazaar, or something like the pre-Columbian Americas, like those journeys into Mexico through paintings of Rufino Tamayo. At the same time Alexander’s cosmological materia prima strives as a space traveler going through a torrential asteroid storm. This new volume’s mix of open, serial forms is particularly arresting: dramatic monologues, prose autobiography, fragments (the tercet of “The Cosmos as Fragment” quoted in full reads, “a bell in a grotto / a sun with its flame / riveted inside a selva”), and possibly most striking of all, a verse biography of César Vallejo, a poetic forebear of musical difficulty in language.

In reading the searing lines of the Vallejo-dedicated “Combustion & Leakage” I was reminded of the timely analysis of Vallejo in critic Michelle Clayton’s recent book Poetry in Pieces. Alexander’s poem on the great Peruvian evokes the vibrancy of Clayton’s critical account of the inimitable modernist:

                      I ascribe to you combustive zones & witness

                      a-rhythmic triune inferno

                      acidic soil & self-leakage

and later:

                      pained as you spoke

                      about the shadows accrued between tumbleweed & slaughter

                      between occlusion & its riots

                      [...]

                      Cesar

                      it was you who dug bread

                      for the miners & burros

                      knowing full well the tungsten & its threading

                      knowing full well its metallic underground peninsula

A pre-packaged set of realities (NPR alienation, collapsed idealism, despair of illness, or “celebration” among the super-marketing of economies of attention) accompanies most contemporary American poetry, even the abstract and inscrutable kind. Here, by contrast, we find Vallejo’s embodied world of Santiago de Chuco riot, Trujillo prison term, followed by a brief allusion to his lesser known (in the US) proletarian novel El Tungsteno, all amid a set of phraseological forces the Peruvian once called “Telúrica y magnética” in his famous poem bearing that title. Peru was central to Vallejo’s poems, and Alexander’s poetry has a homologous relationship to revolutionary, decolonizing, 60s Africa, and to images of phenomenality from the pre-colonial black Africa of Cheikh Anta Diop’s voluminous writings: “the earth being for me the specificity of Africa,” as the prose “My Interior Vita” has it. Alexander’s ur-level, Aimé Césaire-derived African-ness or négritude—with his own additions of Sun Ra, astronaut, and shaman, like so many free jazz sidemen covering Bob Marley’s Survival—is out, overdriven, unspeakable, almost “notes” achieving musical overtones available in a utopian scramble of significations. Those under the spell of previous poetic experience will find little familiar here in “the wilderness of an a priori blizzard.” Instead Rimbaud’s poet as seer—whose science is an alchemy of linguistic invention—triumphantly emerges from the phrase-making: “his unstable forms / carving his soil with volcanic seeds.” Alexander’s baroque imaging presumes the pointlessness of our commercialized condition; and what was once said of John Coltrane rings true with him—ever-searching, never-drifting.

 

 

 

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