Winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award, Focal Point is a scientist’s unofficial dissertation, a daughter’s faithful correspondence, and a coming-of-age story. Written largely while Jenny Qi was a young Ph.D. student conducting cancer research after her beloved mother's death from cancer, the collection turns to “all the rituals of all the faiths,” invoking Western and Eastern mythology and history, metaphors from cell biology, and even Jimi Hendrix, as Qi searches for a container to hold grief. The opening poem of this debut collection primes us to consider all definitions of the titular “focal point,” as the speaker evaluates this moment of early loss beneath a literal and metaphoric microscope. Here, the past and future converge, but from here, what does divergence look like? What can a scientific mind do except interrogate and attempt to measure the unknown and immeasurable? These poems, at once tender and suffused with wry humor, diverse in form and scope, go on to navigate illness, early relationships, racism, climate change, mass shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic, unflinching in the face of death and the darker side of human nature. At its core, Focal Point is an uncompromising interrogation of how to be alive in the world, always loving something that has been or is in the process of being lost.
Jenny Qi is the author of the debut poetry collection Focal Point, selected by Dustin Pearson as the winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award. Her essays and poems have been published widely in newspapers and literary journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rattle, ZYZZYVA, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has received fellowships from Tin House, Omnidawn, Kearny Street Workshop, and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. At the end of graduate school, she co-founded and produced the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio, where she wrote and talked a lot about death. Born in Pennsylvania to Chinese immigrants, she grew up mostly in Las Vegas and Nashville and now resides in San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology and currently works in oncology consulting. She is working on more essays and poems and translating her late mother’s memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and immigration to the U.S.
Though this is Jenny Qi's debut collection, you'd never guess it from the poems, which deftly balance emotional rawness with meticulously-crafted lyricism. The humble brilliance of this book is evident from the very first poem in which the poet (herself a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology) is forced to inject hundreds of mice with disease but goes about "...covering cages with paper so they can’t watch their sisters die". These are also the poems of a daughter sitting beside her mother's deathbed, not to mention a brilliant and quick-witted soul struggling to express her grief in a world stung by ashes, racism, and mass shootings.
But there's more than grief and heartbreak here--a lot more. For instance, consider the humor of these opening lines from THE WAY LOVE EXPIRES:
"I always spoil it with poetry, the way I spoil milk by setting it out in the open, shining too hot a light on its sweetness and speeding up its degradation."
Or this hilarious couplet from the poem, FIRST SPRING, 2011:
"The ice is melting. Things are growing. Birds are fucking in the sky."
Then there's the quiet strength of these concluding lines from NORMAL:
"Mama, I finally get it, why those surgeries broke you. Why you were so cross about living even as you did everything to live.
But at the same time I don’t, because I’ll recover."
Speaking of great lines, I'm still blown away by these opening lines from ABOUT FACE:
"A friend asks have I encountered racism due to the pandemic, after reading about attacks on women & elderly citizens of Asian descent. I say no,
and after a pause, I don’t usually walk alone anymore. Only with my white boyfriend, so I can borrow his skin like a coat, wrap it tight round my neck."
There's also the wonderful simplicity of this short poem, one of my favorites from the collection, which I'll show in its entirely:
"A man in the lab next door shuffles his feet when he walks, hooded eyes gazing downward. Poor unhappy grad student, I thought. But then I saw him rolling in with a stroller, undaunted by the lime green diaper bag on the handle, unashamed of the floral pattern that makes some men squirm. He looked at ease for once, publications forgotten, experiments on hold, too busy gazing downward, caressing petal fingers, parading about the lab with his baby in his arms."
Another favorite of mine is WHAT WE GREW IN THE DESERT, near the end of the collection, which I'll also include here (and which I wish I could assign to creative writing students across the country):
"My mother wanted flowers, fragrant and lovely. So she flooded young seeds until they boiled in midday heat, and when they didn’t bloom, she thought she could will blossoms with sullen silence.
My father wanted fruit trees, hardy and useful. So he baked saplings in the sun until they brittled into sand, and when they didn’t ripen, he thought he could shout them into submission.
At night, I snuck into the garden and sang my pleas into the leaves. Still, the gardenia blackened and scorched, the jasmine shot its stars into the ground, the peaches puckered around unformed pits.
In the end, all we grew was oleander, pink flesh burst from clay, blowing sweet poison to the wind."
I'm already pretty familiar with Qi's work, having seen lots of it in poetry magazines over the years. In fact, she's one of those writers I always look for in the table of contents of any given magazine. So when I heard that she'd won the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award, I found myself grinning like an idiot, certain i was in for something special. But nothing could have prepared me for this excellent book--which, as I alluded to earlier, reads less like a debut collection than a veteran poet at the absolute peak of her skill.
“all these places I have traveled without you / so I can forget how without you I am” (Postcards from the Living, 36).
This is a prolific debut collection from Jenny Qi meditating on the relation between loss and love, written while she was a PhD student and informed by her scientific background in biology. Oftentimes, science and the arts, such as poetry, can be perceived as divorced, but Qi proves that these disciplines are only different ways of approaching the same human preoccupations: wounds and their healing.
Even as she explores and utilizes these disciplines, Qi also poignantly laments their moments of futility when a loved one is suffering: “What use is brilliance / if I can’t direct those beams at renegade cells, particles / eroding memories / of her keys on the counter, / lullabies she once sang, / our early morning strolls / by the pond where a crane once / walked into its reflection” (Radiation, 31).
The strength of Qi's approach is recording life by oscillating between micro and macro levels. In Biology Lesson 1, she asserts "cells need touch" while other poems explore that this exchange is just as necessary and volatile between humans. Her content is brilliantly in sync with her use of form: as How Men Deal ruminates on fire and ash, the spacing within the poem itself resembles burn marks and obliterated space. Qi's writing is composed of a spectacularly orchestrated collision of images: blood being scrubbed from grey sheets, a tired lab worker brightening upon holding his child, an envelope tucked under a mattress, dying laboratory mice.
Focal Point is haunting without being despairing, and Qi has a keen ability to craft opening and closing lines of poetry that feel like a punch to the gut in the best possible way; I will be thinking about “to cure a thing / is to remove it from time” (Two Cures, 45) for weeks to come.
In this collection, I especially enjoyed Psalm, Sometimes I Remember, We Will Die Beautifully in the Way of Stars, Sun Setting on San Francisco, Connection, and When This is All Over. I am honored to have received an ARC, and, as someone who has also experienced loss, can attest that this book offers both catharsis and comfort.
Beautifully written and an emotional journey cover to cover. I feel like I grew while reading! Qi is an exciting new voice in poetry. While working on her PhD in biology, the author explores the grief of losing her mother, the happy anxiety of new relationships and the gravity of the challenges we face as a society.
I read this book last month and have been so excited waiting to share it with you guys! Focal Point is Jenny Qi’s debut poetry collection, written while she was a Ph.D student and in response to her mother’s death.
The collection is so beautifully written, and I adored the ways Qi tied her experience and knowledge as a scientist into the poems themselves. The collection uses both science and poetry to explore and talk about her loss of her mother in a way that was both heartbreaking and really unique.
I think my favorites in the collection were Distribution, Letters to My Mother, Little Fires, Brother, Biology Lesson 2, and Palmistry.
Focal Point is aptly titled because it a collection of poems that instantly propel the reader into a myriad of reflections. Qi is masterfully able to weave stories around death, grief, and scientific interrogation seamlessly. Whether it is through a poem about the Bay Area fog or contemplating what love means for poets, she captures the reader’s complete attention. This act of seeing and intentional focus is what makes these poems so intimate and leaves the reader changed by the last page.
it’s so rare for a writer to have so much control over their voice in a debut collection, but qi is precise & incising & graceful all at once. locating personal grief in a time of mass grief, qi carves a necessary space for her & her reader to inhabit—a space where everything we love/have loved/will love can always exist. at a time in my life filled w so much anticipatory grief, this was an especially important read for me
In Focal Point Circe and Penelope gain voice, and a dead wife speaks from beyond the tomb. Science becomes tender or tragic or glorious, and the fogs of San Francisco choke out life. Focal Point is a collection of deep sadness, of the memory and the presence of pain and loss and grief, but it is also a work of aching, staggering beauty.