Creative Writing grad student Ned Randolph reviews Cathy Park Hong’s BathHouse reading from earlier this semester:
Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (W. W. Norton, New York, 2007) imagines a heightened collision between the language of commercialism in a futuristic, globalized world. She read from the work on Thursday at the most recent BathHouse Reading Series event at Eastern Michigan University.
The poem sequence features a fictionalized dissident from South Korea — turned tour guide — who is leading a historian through an imagined futuristic city, called the Desert, which resembles in many ways the surreal commercialism of Las Vegas.
Her tour guide speaks in a pidgin assembled from English, Korean and other dialects that spit out cliches as if they were jingles written for the occasion, such as “unabashed Succotash” and “I get laid in me Escalade, then I drink Crystal before I take out my pistol.”
The sequence of poems, which won the 2006 Barnard Women Poets Prize, bears a loose connection to Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil guides the reader through the nine circles of Hell. This guide, instead, has on the surface sold her lyrical soul to commercialism as she touts in the language of commodities, musing on “Colgate white teeth” and her caveats for dating “even if them wining and dining me” as she leads her historian through a fictional hotels based on the cities of the world.
“Behold, the toilet!”
Hong reads without lights or special effects. Diminutive with a clear, melodious voice she riffs on commercials through the words of the guide who makes one nostalgic for the actual desert, a natural occurrence, in comparison to the commercial construction of the Desert in city.
The narrative of the historian (gender unspecified) is also interspersed throughout the collection, as he recollects his own experiences, including the Civil War in Sierra Leon, where it was safer to draw the city streets than to walk them. Though, he said, he was a poor illustrator. “Childish draftsmanship forced me to focus on smaller things,” his says in a poetic primer than I put in my own pocket for later.
“les’ toast to bountiful gene pool, to intramarry couple breedim beige population!” a celebrant offers.
Hong also read from her forthcoming book that consists of a trilogy of poems — from three imagined boom towns: an Old Western in the 19thy Century, Chengdu in president day China, and a cyberpunk city of the future.
From the first, she read three short sound poems, including two lipograms that relied on a single recurring vowel.
In the second, the narrator’s boyfriend from Chengdu works in a Rembrandt replication factory, where he paints five fake Rembrandt’s a day that are exported to a far off land called Florida.
The cyberpunk world is inhabited with “smart snow” which is nano-like computer dust that connects people without the need for computers. People can read others’ thoughts and vacation by spelunking in another’s mind.
Hong pulls from her own influences to sculpt her work in prose and verse. A former journalist, she tends to look to the world at large to inform her poetics. She spent a year in Korea interviewing defectors from North Korea in 2005. While there, she was amazed, she said, to find the Korean language so newly laden with English words, which was different from the Korean spoken by her own parents.
Still, in the bilingual household in California, she said, her family always spoke in broken sentences.