Imagining the Anthropocene: Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire

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In 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” to describe the geologic epoch during which human activity (primarily, the burning of fossil fuels) has significantly altered the earth. Geologists formally adopted the term in 2016. And yet, resistance to the fact of human-caused climate change remains rampant. If we are to preserve our species by reversing humans’ catastrophic impact on earth systems, we must facilitate a deeper cultural understanding of our relationship with the planet. The Imagining the Anthropocene series presents books of poetry that imagine humans’ impact on a geologic scale.

On the Olympic Peninsula there are still pockets of old growth that teem with nurse logs and waist-high ferns, but most of its ancient flora has been reaped in the interest of commerce. Over the last century, this northwestern-most corner of the continental US has lost its forests to the lumber industry. Now, each acre holds trees of uniform height, planted to repopulate after a clear-cut. Trunks of new growth choke the soil.

By the side of Washington 101, between the towns of Sappho and Beaver, a sign says:

First Harvest 1932
Second Harvest 1964

So we’ll think they’re responsible loggers? my father said. We passed another square of half-grown softwoods, then another hillside of stumps.

In the nineteenth century, Manifest Destiny cast pillage as a moral imperative. Its rallying cry re-ignited the American founding’s genocide and environmental destruction to fuel westward expansion. By the engine of industrialism, white imperialism ravaged human civilizations and fueled the crisis of climate change.

Cathy Park Hong’s sonorous triptych Engine Empire reshapes the Western’s tropes into a chilling interrogation of digitally facilitated detachment. Its opening section, “The Ballad of Our Jim,” is voiced by a band of brothers who flee service in the Civil War to chase the West’s disordered bloodshed. While Hong’s point of view centered on the “we” implicates the reader in the collective, her speakers’ drawl and lilt conjure a bygone dialect:

They see us ride, they say
:all you men going the wrong di-rection.
:We’re getting to California. We ain’t got time to enlist.

Departing for “afar, the boomtowns of precious ore,” the brothers place their faith in fabled Western riches, proclaiming their willingness to perpetrate the violence necessary to claim such wealth. Throughout “The Ballad of Our Jim,” Hong’s use of the first-person plural reminds the reader that we, citizens of the twenty-first century, are party to the brothers’ actions. Such a confrontation is especially resonant when Hong narrates atrocities carried out against Native Americans. Early in their journey, they kidnap a half-Native boy (“christen him Our Jim”) and force him into servitude and combat.

Anyone who crosses their path—or whose homes they trespass onto—is subject to their wrath. In the brothers’ eyes, “Our Jim” is racialized as an intimate other. Through extremes of vowel and dialect, the poem traces the boy’s imprisonment. The brothers force him to kill and defile the bodies of humans they encounter. Eventually, after the group is haunted by “harridans” and mourning sisters, the boy turns “deadmouthed,” then homicidal. He turns his gun on law enforcement officers: “a high grass constable, / an old techy ranger,” anyone who represents the occupying entity. In the haunting, “Ballad in I,” one of three single-voweled poems in this section, Hong writes:

His mind’s still spiting, knifing with skill,
his victimizing intrinsic within his mind,
grinding within his skin,
Jim sings: I’m tiring. I’m tiring.

The “I” sounds circle like sirens. Hong’s tight lines spin dialect into its own critique, using extremes in language to render extremes in environment. Her omission of many articles and coordinating conjunctions creates a highly compressed syntax built from only essential components. Through her prosody’s distilled whine, “Jim” rages and flees, refusing to die by the settlers’ hangman.

Today, nation-states still pursue progress at all costs. Engine Empire’s second and third sections center on Asian boomtowns. Both the anti-capitalist social portrait of “Shengdu, My Artful Boomtown” and the largely interior speculative verse in “The World Cloud” use “The Ballad of Our Jim” as their foundation. In “Seed Seller’s Sonnet,” Hong writes, “History intones catch up, catch up while a number rots, then another.” Progress has become its own end. While Hong’s diction turns more contemporary, its mournful tone recalls the bloodshed of colonialist expansion. But in this globalized world, there is no more room for humans to grow; we’re barely making it as is:

          Burn your chattel to keep the cloud afloat
so its tears can freeze to snow.

The ethereal speaker who claims the “I” of “The World Cloud” finds love in an inward, technologically focused world, but humanity itself has become industrial. In this seemingly advanced civilization, the narrator is beholden to how “the booming trade of information / exists without our labor.” Hong’s brazen metaphors and determined personas transform a history of trauma into a sensitivity to the conditions of human survival.