I Wrong Form: On Cindy Juyoung Ok’s “Ward Toward”

Chloe Xiang reviews Cindy Juyoung Ok’s “Ward Toward.”

I Wrong Form: On Cindy Juyoung Ok’s “Ward Toward”

Ward Toward by Cindy Juyoung Ok. Yale University Press. 100 pages.

“I WAS TOLD NOT to shake / my foot that way,” Cindy Juyoung Ok writes, “the luck leaks out.” In her new debut collection, Ward Toward, Ok shakes her foot repeatedly, disobediently. Ward Toward, the 118th volume of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, challenges the confinements of different wards, whether they assume the form of a superstition, grammar rule, psych ward, or country. The collection reads like moss growing between cracks in the sidewalk—beautiful, ungovernable, distinct—as the poems within seep through and expose the cracks in once-impenetrable structures. The wards between which Ok moves are threaded together by their shared impulse to enforce a certain expectation or standard, and she refutes them with fervent distrust and a matured sense of disillusion. “I don’t believe in any thing, not even / the idea of California,” she writes, in the collection’s first poem, “Three Act Comedy,” with a tone of defiant atheism that traverses through the collection. Instead of amending herself for the sake of “warding off” bad luck, Ok beckons us into a striking first collection where she dares to fracture and reform herself in original syntax.

Throughout the collection, Ok wryly speaks of a past self from a present lens, where the past self follows rules, accepts diagnoses, and appears in the recurring setting of a mental health hospital, while the present voice fractures that facade. In “The Orders,” Ok writes about her experience at a psych ward, using 11 stanzas that are each numbered one through four. Ok describes herself as playing “quiet games they ask me to,” as she smiles through the irony of a place that was meant to help her, only to enclose her. As the poem progresses, its urgency increases, creating a sense of claustrophobia—until the poem comes to a boiling point, brittle and ready to break. At the end of the poem, Ok writes, “I / call most perception hallucination since / I will not know until the discharge of / my body thinned at its own perimeters.” Here, Ok uses a present perspective to draw attention to the dilution and distortion of her self—a change that she only recognizes after she is discharged. Ok’s reflection on the harm in submitting to the “acceptability of the standard” drives her to point out how external order can create internal disorder throughout the book. The unraveling of selfhood that appears here becomes the fundamental dichotomy of the collection: what it means to live as another’s ideal versus what it means to live formlessly, for oneself.

This dichotomy extends to her writings on Western society’s larger perception of Asian American women, where she astutely identifies how she is seen more as an ideogram than a person. In “In Atlanta,” written in reaction to the 2021 mass murder of Asian spa workers, Ok reflects on her past submission: “From // form to form I always was a good tester: / fill in the blank, circle the best.” But the tragedy “confirmed about my beautiful // and disposable body, effortlessly endable, / after all a symbol, even in hiding.” In this poem, Ok reveals how even complying with what is deemed “correct” in a hegemonic power structure is still a form of powerlessness. The descriptions of her “disposable” and “endable” body expose how the female Asian body has become a symbol of fragility and lust in the popular imagination, and hiding cannot prevent or rewrite that. This futility of silence catalyzes Ok’s decision to betray the form she was given and call into question who creates its guidelines. Ok concludes the poem with “our famous flatness: breasts, feet, eyes, / consciousness,” using the plural “our” to describe the collective compression of Asian women, who are not only seen as physically flat but whose characteristics are also two-dimensional.

Ok transforms society’s reduction of her identity into a skillful and imaginative poetics that embodies her corporeal self. Instead of moving beyond the textual, Ok embraces the ways she can reclaim her representation through the same medium. In “The Five Room Dance,” Ok writes, “the words we cross a swarm / from which I am wrung. As I, wrong, form.” Here, Ok describes a rather violent origin—she is restricted to an existing cluster of words that she can use to communicate with. The jarring syntax of “I, wrong, form,” as opposed to the more grammatically natural structure, “I form wrong,” is a powerful claim that allows the statement to be read as a definitive and intentional way of being, as in “I wrong form.” This line serves as the ethos of the collection as Ok rejects grammatical and cultural standards, confidently embracing nonconformity.

The intersection of identity and language is further explored in two poems, “‘P.S. Please Forgive Poor Grammar’” and “‘How Is Temperature in East?,’” which use textual collaging to fissure and reform emails that Ok’s mother sent her. These poems feature a nontraditional English speaker, presenting lines that are missing possessives and prepositions and mixing up verb tenses to become a new dialect. In both poems, the speaker is an older person who tries to relate to her child about living through death and depression in her young adulthood, and expresses regret for not having been there for them at a young age. The knowledge that the poems are, in fact, derived from emails from a mother to her daughter calls into question the original content of the messages and suggests that these poems might serve as a way for Ok to give voice to what she wishes her mother could say to her. These poems further Ok’s strength in generative poetics, revealing how she is able to rupture existing texts to unearth new meanings. By purposely declining to copyedit the original sentences, Ok demonstrates the meaningfulness of fractured English, as understood by immigrants and their children.

Ok contrasts these grammatically fluid moments with reflections on the linguistic indoctrination she experienced while growing up in the United States. In “Ten Words,” Ok recounts an assignment in elementary school where a teacher asked her to write about the origin of vocabulary words. She wrote about the word “dire,” explaining that it came from a town that punished residents with the offering, “die or consequence?” “Everyone picked consequence and eventually the question became dire consequence?” she writes. In this poem, Ok uses language as a meta-representation of the imposed cultural standards and lack of choice she faces in the US, including in the assignment itself—which fails to imagine that the origins of English words are directly rooted in the erasure of some students’ cultural histories. She describes how many ESL programs use cognates as a bridge, “a strategy mostly relevant from European languages.” Ok thus exhibits how she was forced to adopt a language inherited from etymological ancestors she neither recognizes nor belongs to. The “dire consequence,” which is compared to death, is what compelled her to speak and write in an externally recognizable way. Against this context of forced assimilation, poems like “‘P.S. Please Forgive Poor Grammar’” become emboldened as forms of protest.

In her prose poem “Degeneration,” Ok chronicles the erosion of a mother tongue in a more generic classroom, between children and “raiders.” “A generation of children learned only the language of the raiders,” she writes, “The raiders then forced worship, and new names.” By focusing on the violence of language in her discussion of colonization, Ok articulates how the way things are named and titled has far-reaching effects in warping one’s perception of the world. At the end of the poem, Ok writes, “when they cannot recognize their apartments, their bodies, or each other, they know that language, the language of the raiders which, in hiding, has become primary.” Language, here, carries the power to detach familiarity from selfhood, stripping the intimacies of home, body, and family. Ok counteracts this by creating new linguistic patterns and textual forms to center what is hidden from classrooms and dominant narratives. In poems such as “Before the DMZ,” which is written in the shape of Korea; “Ten Sessions,” which is composed of Ok’s therapist’s notes; and “Home Ward,” which forms rough blueprints of two hospice wards, Ok uses her poetry to reimagine the places she’s come from and been in.

In Ward Toward, Ok takes language apart: questioning its origin, proposed syntax, and meaning to separate the form from its built-in rules. Ok’s poetics destabilizes the structures that we take to be static and articulates what it feels like to exist with two sets of realities. Disguised in forms such as an ordered list or the shape of a country, each poem is imbued with Ok’s interpretations, desires, and reflections that extend beyond those forms. In “Pale Music,” Ok asks, “[D]o you ever sit / on the toilet wishing Jerusalem meant something to you?” Here, Ok reveals both a distance from Western myths and a proximity to its believers. Yet, the ultimate hollowness of Jerusalem points back to Ok’s message that the mere usage of raiders’ language is not enough to evoke true belonging. Ok crafts her own Jerusalem, separating herself from an audience for whom the city holds power.

LARB Contributor

Chloe Xiang is a writer and photographer whose work has been published in Vice, Yahoo News, and Teen Vogue. She is the founding editor in chief of Keke Magazine and a social media manager at The New Yorker.


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