people building structure during daytime

On Cindy Juyoung Ok’s ‘House Work’: A Review Essay

House Work
by Cindy Juyoung Ok
Ugly Duckling Presse, 40pp., $14.00 (print)

“Along with the interweaving of her various themes,” award-winning poet Rae Armantrout writes, “it’s important to note that Cindy Juyoung Ok is a wonderfully inventive poet with a command of her craft. She writes in many forms, some invented, and her constant impulse is to break the frame, to escape oppressive containment.” Though the words come from the preface to Ok’s debut full-length collection, the poet’s formal diversity can be seen throughout her work. 

I received a copy of Cindy Juyoung Ok’s chapbook House Work late last fall in a “welcome to the literary neighborhood” care package from Ugly Duckling Presse, who published it in March 2023. Though most of UDP’s books boast creative covers, this one stood out as a work of art in itself, the light tan cover embossed with red letterpress and opening in the middle like a moving box. Unboxing it reveals a gift of twenty-one poems on crisp, white pages tied with crimson string.

Ok’s variety of forms includes old standards. The first poem, “The Five Room Dance”, for instance, is a rhyming English sonnet. The poet’s enjambed lines leave quatrains spilling over, eliding some of the cloying aspects of formalist poetry; “you count the hips to sigh // over with the seam of open borders.” the poet writes, and “a woman is a thing that absorbs. Reset by our brown // paper walls, time lends rest”. This poem and twelve others from House Work also appear in Ward Toward, Ok’s full-length debut published by Yale University Press in March 2024.

The speaker in the later poem, “This Morning”, which is among those only in the chapbook, uses free verse couplets to continue the idea of women absorbing with a metaphor:

It seems to me a sponge
generally shrinks its sense
of self willingly. Delusions
are projected onto it but
the sponge does not have

Ok alludes to gender roles with the sponge, while the lines convey how those roles and their designated tasks confine women, making House Work an effectively ambiguous title. The short poem ends with words playing on its opening, a final couplet presenting a new perspective, subverting this confinement, “Lack is spacious and, / a spring, seams to me.”

The chapbook’s autobiographical speaker shows that she means what she says about spatial economics in poems like “Composition of a Raft”, which is intended to be read in multiple ways. The poem presents four horizontal stanzas in two vertical columns, mimicking an unlashed raft. Its lines can be read first horizontally, the poem beginning, 

Elsewhere they carried out [] planned explosions of clay
in the earth to pause the wildfires— [] that summer we were
stretching time, wandering past [] the blockades

Ok notes that “we” refers to friends with whom she demonstrated against Israeli occupation in Ramallah, Palestine. The altered, vertical reading resonates with the emotions involved in protesting oppression:

Elsewhere they carried out
planned explosions of clay
that summer we were
the blockades, telling
and studying loyalty
not alignment

Many of Ok’s poems beguile readers with simple language that mixes meanings through homonymic allusions and pointed puns. Her speaker deals with the work of making a house when you feel out of place in “Moss and Marigold”, a poem in four quatrains. As in other poems, enjambed lines end the stanzas, deftly pulling the reader along. The speaker addresses our constructed realities:

The country is 
a construction, with each writing becomes more made. 
I am making it now, here, to you—to say my country
provides an illusion of synthesis, as my landlord supplies

a fantasy of individuality.

With one foot in the United States and the other in Korea, Ok seems to struggle with not fully belonging to either culture. She infuses much of her poetry with diasporic frustrations, bred of living in busy neighborhoods of cramped cities.

The speaker’s tercets evoke this striving for a better life in “Setting”:

Our language is an interim one

of copays, porch swings, and the deadening
issue, by which we hope not to eventually

relax into a lack of feeling, making of
mortality a chasm waned.

Though Ok doesn’t explicitly identify as such, readers can pick up on queer themes from the pronoun usage in certain poems, as in these lines from “Ceremony”:

In a dream a former lover
and her new lover and their

old lover recite a poem
titled a summer date. My sister
recognizes it and I think,
all there is left now is—

The poem ends on that em dash, with the title implying the unsaid word. Many of Ok’s poems play with language in order to make their point and call attention to the words and their connotations. “Assembly”, for example, addresses how language is appropriated and can be used to control. The speaker says, 

I never
would call you my

love, to keep you
subject, concrete
noun, person, just
as you are not your

Ok’s lines call to mind the so-called “Language poetry” for which Armantrout— who chose Ward Toward for 2023 Yale’s Younger Poets Prize— is known. She doesn’t seem to confine herself to any school, though.

In “Manzanita Street”, another poem only in the chapbook, the speaker alludes to her time as a high school science teacher. In lines that convey the pain of building relationships with students that only seem like family, she tells of how twin students would call her “mom”, a sign of their favor. The speaker laments, however, that after years of writing to the twins whenever she wrote to her own mother, one year the letters were returned to her, unopened. She conveys her feelings in a powerful tercet:

there are namers and name
receivers, and I have only
birthed clots, one at a time.

While the poetry in this collection was a pleasure to read, it doesn’t make for the easiest reading. Many of the poems required multiple readings to understand and appreciate, but deft lineation keeps the free verse flowing in poems of varying form. Ok’s skillful use of internal rhyme and repetition makes the rereading enjoyable.

This chapbook may not be for everyone. Its stark language may irritate and readers looking for poems that are easily understood on a first reading might want to pass. If you’re like Armantrout and I, though, and enjoy powerful poetry that leads you to interrogate and reconsider language, House Work might be the perfect little book for you.

Author Bio

Aiden Hunt is a writer, poet, and literary critic. He is the editor, creator, and publisher of the Philly Poetry Chapbook Review. Aiden’s critical essays have been published in (or are forthcoming from) journals including Tupelo Quarterly and Fugue Journal.
You can find out more about him at

Cindy Juyoung Ok’s Author Website
House Work Product page

Front Page header (Volume 1, Issue 2: Mar-Apr 2024)


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