Focal Point (Steel Toe Books, October 2021)
Reviewed by Kiyoko Reidy
Science and poetry are closer than they appear. Jenny Qi’s debut collection—and winner of the Steel Toe Books 2020 Poetry Award—forges that connection. A haunting constellation of loss, dreams, violence, landscape, and spoken language springs from the mind of a scientist willing to question the things that resist answers: death, the capriciousness of power, the uncertainty of knowledge. Science and poetry both express a love of truth—science seeks to possess the truth, whereas poetry waits for it to speak. Qi wrestles with this in the book’s opening poem, “POINT AT WHICH PARALLEL WAVES CONVERGE & FROM WHICH DIVERGE”: the final lines read, “I think how cruelly futile all this / erratically focused empathy, how brutal / to learn why I couldn’t save / what I couldn’t save.”
Focal Point is divided into four numbered sections after the opening poem. Grief whistles a clear note throughout all four sections—fueled by racism, mass shootings, a brother who could have been, and, most centrally, the death of a mother. The book begins with the mother in her final moments—the first poem in the first section is titled “THE LAST VISITATION”—and ends with what life looks like after the loss of a parent—a poem in the final section is titled “DREAMING OF MY MOTHER FIVE YEARS LATER.” Between these two poems is not a chronological progression through grief, but a meandering journey that moves both forward and backward through time that mirrors the nonlinear experience of grief.
Qi’s scientific eye provides a lens through which the world is again made strange and new. I am not a scientist—in fact, the world of science often feels inaccessible to me these days. Yet, it is Qi’s clear voice and how she turns her eye toward moments of tender humanity that creates a book full of doors into this world. In “TELOMERES & A 2 AM (LOVE) POEM,” there is both a quick science lesson and a confession that “I might tolerate/like/love you.” Situated in a late-night study session, this scientific love poem is both smart and welcoming, hesitant and tender. In “TRANSPLANT,” Qi turns to scientific metaphor as a way of processing racism in San Francisco. She writes, “I don’t need you to remind me / I’m not from around here. / A transplant / that won’t take, like the first / foreign / hearts / rejected by the body / before scientists learned / how to make them beat / as if they always belonged.”
The ease with which Qi’s scientific knowledge is blended into her poems is a reminder that we all live in a world of processes, that things live and die around and within us all the time. The four poems that include “BIOLOGY LESSON (1-4)” centers the death of cells—first through want of touch, then from suffocation—but also their almost-miraculous capacities. These short poems, three to four lines long, offer snippets of both the body’s failures and its victories. “BIOLOGY LESSON 2” ends: “Even the toughest / cells die wanting / room to breathe.” By the time we make it to “BIOLOGY LESSON 4,” however, we receive a single sentence: “Fed the right factors, / cells can become anything— / molecular inspiration.” These miniature poems, amidst the page’s broad white space, could feel crushed by the expansive blankness. Instead, I see the poem asserting itself, insisting on its aliveness.
The latter half of Focal Point is rich with dreams. Dreams exist in the liminal space of reality—so often they build off what we know, what is familiar, but then proceed to unravel it. In the book’s third section, Qi pushes hard against some of the book’s epistemologically-driven questions: what can we know, and how do we come to know it? To what degree does knowledge give us power over our own lives? In “HABITS,” Qi considers the way we physiologically construct certain kinds of knowing:
Brain cells, like muscles, build
connections with repeated stimulation,
letting memories scratch across
until they live in the grooves.
The more you remember, the deeper
the scratches, the more you remember
until remembering is habit, like breathing
or tying a butterfly knot in the dark.
Darkness, too, is a habit—ruminating
on sorrow until sorrow is easy
The body’s muscle memory of how to tie a knot or do every step in the “slow waltz with loss” drives this book just as much as knowledge of brain cells. It is through the body that we know the certainty of darkness and the totality of sorrow, but it is also the way we begin to find our way out of that darkness. In “MAGNIFICENT THINGS,” a peacock flares its stunning tail: “I watch the peacock turning, / a silent waltz in the grass / patterned tail fanned out, / waving like a skeleton hand. / How delicate the feathers, / tattered strings of a sail / struggling against the wind. / How flimsy their magnificence.” Even in the glory of this moment, the skeletal hand—death—permeates the poem. Still, the feathers may be a tattered, flimsy sail—but they are magnificent. In this, I see not a theatrical, movie-grade rebirth, but a chance at hope—how, even during grief’s cruel hours, beauty can emerge quietly in the magnificence of feathers.
Kiyoko Reidy is a poet from east Tennessee. Her poems and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction as a Sunday Short Read, Sugar House Review, RHINO, Missouri Review as a Poem of the Week, and elsewhere.