Review of Focal Point by Jenny Qi

Jenny Qi's Focal Point, winner of the Steel Toe Books Poetry Prize & released via Steel Toe Books on October 13th,  is a strikingly moving collection of poems. Concerned at first glance with the process and tribulation of mourning the tragic loss of a parent from the perspective of a young adult  only child, the poems diverge into many corners of loss: social, personal, and global. Focal Point is a master class in approaching grief in poetry, in allowing the memories of lived experience thick with trauma to blossom into the most urgent literature. Grief is laid bare in all its glutinous gloom, allowed to be what is, allowed to be felt. The poems fling wide the doors of mourning and demand we live with deep loss a while and contemplate the roles of parents, the roles of heritage, the roles of single daughters left to care for dispassionate fathers, and of course the onslaught of time and its ruthless agent--cancer.

Far from turning such topics into mawkish sentiment, or approaching them in a nihilistic or exhibitionist tone, Qi's work does sincere justice to the timeless horror of these situations via compelling and euphonic language imbued with genuine sensitivity and empathy. The poems speak plainly, but frequently reflect profound insights. What's delightful are the added instances of scientific diction, allowing us to imagine a speaker, while stricken with grief, who leans on the objectivities and sureties of science. Here the lab is both reprieve and mountaintop, a space where life is both assured and made meaningless, a liminal stage where doomed survivors dance their piece. The science catches up. We see this played out intimately in Focal Point by the time the speaker is told "There's a weird mole on your back," at the close of "MAGNIFICENT THINGS:"

It could be a year or five.
Twenty, fifty-two.
I’m always waiting.

Did you make an appointment yet?

In the dark, I rehearse
my slow waltz with loss.
I know the steps by heart.

The text is also a fearless accounting of how prejudice against immigrant families affects people over generations; these poems size up bigotry and hold its agents accountable for an environment that ultimately contributed to greatest loss. San Francisco features heavily in the collection, and indeed that city has its own complicated history with anti-Asian sentiment and abuses of labor. However, the city also provides a welcome backdrop to poems that draw attention to place as with emotion. Too often when we reach our lowest, we discover the only voice telling us to keep going is our own. It is exceptional books of poetry like Focal Point that point out the many other voices echoing in the great dark (for those with a discerning heart). If contemporary grief writing can be characterized as an ongoing conversation concerning tradition, memory, and death, then Focal Point is among the strongest examples of poets writing on those topics today, and one of the most intriguing poetic debuts in recent years.

Jenny Qi