As prior maps to past and future are increasingly rendered obsolete, and time itself comes to be defined by its interruption, it’s not surprising that fragments frequently serve to narrate the now. Winner of the 2006 Barnard Women Poets Prize, Cathy Park Hong’s ambitious second book of poetry, Dance Dance Revolution, contains at least three fractured yet interwoven stories. The primary one is told by a character known as the “Guide,” who outlines the major events of her life to a “Historian,” who in turn presents their encounter in a transcription sprinkled with his annotations and excerpts from his memoir.
The Guide was born in South Korea and helped lead the 1980 Kwangju rebellion against General Chun Du-Hwan’s military rule. After spending time in a penal colony, she moved to the “Desert,” which consists primarily of theme hotels modeled on other cities (think Las Vegas meets Blade Runner’s L.A.). After working as a housekeeper, she eventually becomes a tourist guide, at which point the Historian comes to interview her. Much less is known about the Historian. He attended various boarding schools, witnessed civil war in Sierra Leone, and has a difficult relationship with his father (as does the Guide with hers). But describing Hong’s book this way is a bit like saying Ulysses is about a guy walking around Dublin one day. The narrative is a skeleton for a polyglot explosion of unique individual and broader social concerns.
Like Joyce, Hong inventively blends numerous languages:“I am crammed with tongues,” the Guide declares. Less self-consciously literary than Joyce, Hong creates an imaginary creole that combines the resourcefulness of English-as-a-second-language dialects with Caribbean patois, staccato Spanish, archaic English, and hip-hop flow:
O tempora, O mores! I usta move
around like Innuit lookim for sea pelt… now
I’mma double migrant. Ceded from Koryo, ceded from
’Merikka, ceded y ceded until now I seizem
dis sizable Mouthpiece role…
Most of the book’s eight chapters are written in this creole, as the Guide tells her story—from her birth in 1960 to 2016—in mostly two-page poems that stand on their own yet achieve full resonance within the overall narrative arc. Sometimes the Historian’s notes help clarify; in terms of the minor details, readers are mostly left on their own. However, Hong is careful to weave recurring phrases and keep context foregrounded, so that, for instance, it doesn’t take too long to figure out “plis boi” refers to the police.What could be frustrating is for the most part a fast-paced and inspired read. Despite the vibrant play of languages and ideas, Dance Dance Revolution is also a somber, angry, and even cynical book. After all, the real Dance Dance Revolution is a video game that requires movement according to preprogrammed steps. Violence and betrayal underlie much of the book’s action as it unfolds against a backdrop of imperialism, anti-democracy, and a voracious global economy. Resistance may take multiple forms, yet even the Guide currently seems to work as a double agent. Hong’s first book of poems, Translating Mo’um, toggled between languages, cultures, generations, and genders. Her new book mixes these more indiscriminately, although not without ambivalence, as it presents a miscegenated future already arrived.