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Between Memory and History

Ward Toward is the 118th volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, in which Cindy Juyoung Ok moves assuredly between spaces—from the psych ward to a prison cell, from divided countries to hospice wards. She plumbs these institutions of constraint, ward to ward, and the role of each reality’s language, word to word, as she uncovers fractured private codes and shares them in argument, song, and prayer.

Join us as we reflect on the role poetry plays in our lives and appreciate the contributions of the poets who have enriched us with a selection of excerpts for National Poetry Month.

Home Ward

Where was I to look?
Patients laid along both long walls.
There were nurses scattered, weaving

through the patients, my
wheharabuhji’s arms tied
to each side of his small
bed to prevent pulling of

tubes out of his long arm,
white gauze wrapped so
taut he could not lift his
hand. Walking down the

small halls created by the
elderly bodies, any bed
might have been his. My
eyes tossed well between

skinny plots, my breath
held to avoid their
contents, slow molding. I
had not had to search for

that face, the smile that
declares. His two detained
liabilities were so thin to
me, a stranger holding

his hand. Their theory:
our elders are less lonely
in these rooms of sweat
and whimpers. I dream of

him for the first time,
months later, silhouette
body filled again, strong
and smiling as we clutch.

In months he would be
dead in every way, but I
would not fly out, because
of my school schedule, the
cost of travel. Across the
northern border his other
descendants picture him
at thirty, father, frozen.

Ten Words

I was not able to hear whispers well as a child and I worried this would cut
short my friendships.

At that school a teacher let us do creative assignments about the origin of
our ten weekly vocabulary words.

It seemed important not to ask another child more than once or twice to
repeat their secrets.

I wrote about the word “dire” as coming from a town that punished residents
with an offering: die or consequence?

Many ESL programs use cognates as a bridge, a strategy mostly relevant
from European languages.

Everyone picked consequence and eventually the question became dire

Children of parents born elsewhere sometimes overcorrect for their
parents’ pronunciations.

The consequence was comparable to death so it could be assumed to be
always dire.

A Spanish-speaking child might mentally remove their parents’ e sounds
before s at the beginning of a word.

My mother’s wedding dress was rented and her mother made Christmas
trees of umbrellas.

Or a Korean-speaking child might mentally trade their parents’ l’s and r’s
in the middle of a word.

Another fable I wrote, for the word lackadaisical, had to do with some lack
of daisies.

The two children would then alternatively overcorrect the English “establish”
to stablish and estabrish.

I first learned the language at a pre-school whose blue nap cots and wide
slide I remember.

Hypercorrection reveals an anxiety around the appearance of knowing and

To tell that story, I first had to tell the schema of daisies and what they had

There are distinctions which are difficult to learn about a language from
textbooks, manuals, and calendars.

I was competent, teachers assured my parents, just silent as I socialized
with the other toddlers.

For example, it is not obvious “I lie like a semi-colon across the white bed”
presents two meanings.

When I wore my shoes on the wrong feet for my knock knees, classmates
followed in reciprocal silence.

Reading with language only as vehicle will rarely indicate that “lay”
provides two tenses.

When I started talking, after several months of teachers’ concern, they say
I spoke paragraphs.

Cindy Juyoung Ok writes, edits, and teaches poetry.

Rae Armantrout is the award-winning author of eighteen books of poetry, most recently Finalists, Conjure, and Wobble.

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