Reviewed by Jeffrey Kingman
by Jenny Qi
Steel Toe Books
October 2021, Paperback, 98 pages, ISBN-13 978-1949540260
In the mid-20th century, a very personal kind of poetry began to emerge where poets revealed their innermost thoughts and feelings relating to private—often traumatic—experiences. They wrote verse containing the kind of intimate truths that some of us keep hidden even from ourselves. Or, if our inner secrets do surface, we might confide in just one trusted friend. But when poets put it in a book to be published, as Jenny Qi has done with her debut collection Focal Point, the whole world knows. This requires courage, a certain kind of nerve, an unflinching gaze into the mirror. And when a poet such as Qi moves through the stickiness of small details to a place of larger experience, does she go from looking at herself to seeing herself? And what do we, the readers, see?
At the center of Focal Point is the death of the mother from cancer. We are shown the agonizing days of suffering leading to death and the intense grief, the seeming impossibility of losing forever a loved and loving parent. The introductory poem, “Point at Which Parallel Waves Converge & From Which Diverge,” sets the stage: we learn of the speaker’s career in science and how that intersects with health and healing—or the inability to heal. Science is cold in its facts, coming from the rational part of the brain, yet this scientist “refused to donate [her mother’s eyes] because how would she see…” In this passage we are shown uncomfortable interactions (the mother’s voice in italics): “Why don’t you want to study cancer? when I expressed / interest in HIV.”
Most of the poems here are in first person, and before I go into further detail about the poems, I feel the need to talk about what has to happen when a poet writes about their personal experiences, and also what happens regarding the reader’s perception. Notice that in my first paragraph above, I talk about the poet, Qi, taking a hard look at herself. Yet in the second paragraph, I don’t say, “the death of Qi’s mother,” I say, “the death of the mother.” I don’t say, “we learn of Qi’s career,” I say “we learn of the speaker’s career.” And in an endorsement for Focal Point (found on the poet’s website), Victoria Chang presents a few lines from the book in quotation marks followed by, “writes the speaker.” Is the writer of this book not Jenny Qi? Is the speaker in these pages not Jenny Qi? The evidence seems fairly clear. The biographical information available about Qi states that she has a “Ph.D. in Biomedical Science (Cancer Biology).” A description of Focal Point from the publisher states, “Written largely while Jenny Qi was a young Ph.D. student conducting cancer research after her beloved mother’s death from cancer…” The dedication states: “For my mother (1956 – 2011).” Isn’t Qi writing about herself, her own experiences? In poetry workshops, students are asked not to assume that the speaker in the poem is the writer of the poem. If someone addresses a fellow student, “Maria, in this poem you say…” that would have to be corrected. Rather, say, “Maria, in this poem the speaker says…” So in this case, is there a difference (a distance?) between Jenny Qi the person and the speaker in her book? The answer has to be yes. When poets write about personal experiences, they are presenting a version of themselves, similar to a self-portrait painter deciding how they want to present their likeness—frowning, glaring, smiling? They must decide, and they must try to get at something true. In a poetry book such as this, the writer of the book is the person, and the speaker is the persona. Since we’re talking about words here, perhaps it can be said that poets writing about personal experiences are translating themselves, translating for us their own lives. And they strive to do it in a language that is true.
The truest of language is on display in the first poem of section I, “The Last Visitation.” The speaker pits the anguish of trying to help her mother in her last hours against her father’s words of helplessness that unfairly turn into accusations. The father suggests that by seeking help from professors in her Ph.D. program his daughter could save her mother’s life, and then (in broken English) he says, “You give up? She want to live and you don’t let her.” But all this is swept aside at the overpowering last line, “I laid my head on her chest until her gown was wet.”
In one of the strongest and most moving poems of the collection, “Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass,” blame rears its head again. After a description of how difficult it is to write an elegy, the difficult decisions of what is actually remembered and what memories are desired, the poem ends with the persistence of an unwanted memory, the time she was with her mother in her hospital room and stepped into the bathroom to cry for five minutes. She came out to find the bed rail had collapsed and her mother was on the floor. The doctor came in and “looked at me like I’d pushed her.”
A recurring image in the book is the fog of San Francisco. In “Sun Setting on San Francisco,” the fog seems to be omnipresent, and the speaker wants to be “opaque like the fog.” “Little Fires” captures the routine of the fog: “…it was summer in San Francisco / after my mother died. Every day trudging / through the fog thick and cold and aimless / like always-fresh snow. It’s how I imagine / frozen quicksand must feel…” And in the penultimate poem, “When This is All Over,” the fog makes one last appearance as the speaker tells us what she will miss: “…even the fog, that cool grey mist / stalking the shoreline, feeding redwoods / pale honey from a mercurial god, / feasting on city lights in waning hours…” The fog represents, at different times, both a menace and a comfort.
Not all the first-person poems speak directly about the mother, though she and her death may hover closely nearby. There are poems about a significant other, for example “Angles” where the speaker tries to fend off fears that the relationship might descend into petty irritations. And in “Telomeres & a 2AM (Love) Poem” her thoughts of love spiral with her scientific studies:
These are the only kind I’ll write you,
When I should be reading about telomeres—
how they guard the ends of chromosomes
and wane with every breath we take,
leaving fragments of ourselves behind
as our cells grow and divide and become
ever more vulnerable as we get older.
I have the sudden brilliant thought
that the chromosomes in our heart cells
must have the shortest telomeres of all […]
This poem ends on a more positive prediction of the future of the relationship.
Importantly, some of the poems move away from the persona, the I, and explore outside these experiences. There are a series of brief “Biology Lesson” poems where we learn that cell behavior can look like human behavior. And there is the biographical “How Men Deal” which draws on Jimi Hendrix’s loss of his mother as a teenager and his father’s disfunction in the aftermath.
For all of the heaviness of loss, sprinklings of humor provide a welcome relief from the trauma and darkness. One of the best examples is “Circe in the Mirror” where the speaker looks at her love life through the lens of the story of this goddess. She finishes the poem by imagining Circe as being deluded about the level of Homer’s affections. The last line made me laugh out loud.
But ultimately, Focal Point is about pain, and also about how difficult it is to share our experiences when we are in the throes of grief. We are shown the level of this kind of isolation in “Letters to My Mother” where she speaks of her plan to fold a thousand paper cranes for her mother. But she can’t admit this to anyone. And when she sets off the smoke alarm by burning messages onto the paper with incense and candles, she says (italics are the authors), “I told others it was the oven / in which I’d forgotten the burnt toast.” How certain she is that she can never explain her grief and its manifestations to anyone.
But then comes this marvellous book where she finally succeeds in pulling us toward her so we may join her in this painful experience. We feel we are with her, those who have suffered the death of a loved one and even those who haven’t yet. With the speaker, and to the extent possible—and risking an assumption—we feel we are with Jenny Qi.
About the reviewer: Jeffrey Kingman’s poetry collection, BEYOND THAT HILL I GATHER, was published by Finishing Line Press in June 2021. His chapbook, ON A ROAD, was published in December of 2019. He is the winner of the 2018 Eyelands Book Award for an unpublished poetry book, a finalist in the 2018 Hillary Gravendyk Prize book competition, and he received honorable mention in the 2017 Quercus Review Press Fall Poetry Book Award. He has been published in PANK, Clackamas, Visitant, and many others. Jeff has a Master’s degree in Music Composition and has played drums in rock bands most of his life.