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‘Ward Toward’ Review: A Stunning Exploration of Form Carves Out An Inventive Path for Poetry

4.5 Stars

"Ward Toward" by Cindy Juyoung Ok Cover
"Ward Toward" by Cindy Juyoung Ok Cover By Courtesy of Yale University Press
By Erlisa Demneri, Crimson Staff Writer

Questions of identity, mental health, relationships, and race collide as Cindy Juyoung Ok pushes her poetry to its full potential in her debut collection of poetry, “Ward Toward.” The collection won the 2023 Yale Younger Poets Prize, the longest-running annual literary award in the United States given only to the first work of a promising American poet. Introspective and detailed, yet accessible and inviting, “Ward Toward” effectively plays with conventional poetic forms to offer a new, touching perspective.

Even though “Ward Toward” is Ok’s debut collection, she doesn’t shy away from solidifying her identity as a poet by delicately tracing her complex personal history that spans multiple countries and places, from South Korea and the United States to therapy rooms and her childhood neighborhood.

Through her work, Ok tries to create a new poetic form. From the collection's opener, “Three Act Comedy,” her poem lays the ground for the topics throughout the collection such as dealing with depressive episodes, being Asian American, reminiscing about an abusive relationship, and forging connections with family members despite language barriers.

While “Ward Toward” explores heavy and emotionally charged themes, the collection never does so in an exploitative or off-putting manner — conversely, the poetic narrative comes from a place of deep feeling and sincerity, as Ok utilizes personal introspection and little moments of peace to incite compassion in the reader.

Ok’s poems aren’t static or confined to only stanzas and verses — each poem is a living, breathing being that transforms and takes on a shape of its own. In “Ward Toward,” a poem can be a three-page essay, a paragraph, a stylized email from Ok’s mother, or even verses in the shape of North and South Korea. Stanzas are rotated or divided into columns and offer no reading guide or order — the reader is pressured to discover how to physically approach Ok’s work, whether that means turning pages horizontally or deciphering code.

Such an alternative approach to poetry can be risky and come across as strained. “Ward Toward” avoids this trap most of the time by including these unconventionally-shaped poems sparsely and contradicting the puzzling visual images with realistic and personal narratives.

A standout piece in the collection that invites multiple readings, “The Orders” is divided into eleven quatrains, with each stanza’s lines numbered from one to four. The poem can be either read one line after the other, or all the first lines can be read together as one poem. Every order is inventive, offering a new insight into the poem’s overarching themes of life in a hospital ward, therapy sessions, and dealing with mental health. “Ward Toward” is a treasure trove for the rereader — the poems can be read endlessly and guard underlying themes that unfold themselves with each new reading.

For Ok, the word “ward” takes on different meanings — in “Three Act Comedy” or “The Orders,” the word refers to a hospital ward; in “I Was a Highly Awarded,” the word refers to being a dependant; in “Home Ward,” it presents conflicts of returning to the place of origin. Ok toys with and revels in the multiplicity of such a simple yet impactful word.

Ok’s poems are personal and revealing, as most of them are told using the first person. In other poems, another figure emerges: the “you.” The identity addressed in the second person cannot be deciphered easily — is it the reader, another person, or a version of Ok? In some poems, such as “Tally of What Names,” the “I” and the “you” blend and feature together.

Ok writes, “I / am not a field: you / carve and I’m untented, / hospitable to the minor / chords I crave, and you say / the yoke’s unintended.”

“Ward Toward” plays with its reader, and questions their agency. The reader is both an interlocutor and an isolated observer.

Descriptive and elaborate figures of speech are laid over everyday actions or life events, such as engaging with the healthcare system or parting with loved ones. At first glance, Ok keeps the reader at arm’s length by using a dry and detached tone that seems to contrast the gravity of her situation. The poet never offers easy answers — the reader must read insightfully between the lines to engage deeply with the text. However, because Ok tries to make sense of contradicting thoughts and emotions, sometimes the poems are either too blunt or too metaphoric, lacking a final emotional punch.

Vulnerable but also distanced, descriptive yet alienating, emotional yet self-depreciating, “Ward Toward” is a work of contrasts and conflicts. Ok’s authorial voice carries a quiet but pervasive defiance that places her as an exciting voice in the landscape of modern poetry. The collection is confident and presents, through inventive uses of form and emotion, new possibilities of what a poem can be.

—Staff writer Erlisa Demneri can be reached at erlisa.demneri@thecrimson.com.

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