Steel Toe Books ($16)
by Jessica Johnson
The title of Jenny Qi’s Focal Point refers to a term in the lexicon of optics, the “point at which parallel waves converge and from which diverge.” Picture (with your phone or your mind) the diagram: straight lines traveling from a (convex) lens on the left edge of the page toward a single place where they meet and begin traveling toward the right edge, growing further and further apart. In this collection, the “point” is Qi’s mother’s death from cancer, seen from the position of the daughter who then becomes a cancer researcher.
The helplessness of grief is the crux where meaning comes into focus. At the end of the title poem which opens the book, Qi names what her mother can’t see, but what she can: mice, some of whom Qi the scientist injects with cancer and “harsh” medicine, and some of whom she shields to prevent them from “watch[ing] their sisters die.” She writes:
I see my mother in those graying eyes,
eyes I refused to donate because how would she see,
and I think how cruelly futile all this
erratically focused empathy, how brutal
to learn why I couldn’t save
what I couldn’t save.
In hindsight, memories from before the death are travelling inevitably toward eventual illness and loss. All that comes after—thoughts, sensations, problems—can be located in relation to the experience of the same loss.
Throughout Focal Point, images and stories from Qi’s job, relationships, travels, memories, and dreams converge and diverge. The possibility of being in a condition other than alone sharpens, then blurs; the question of solitude is especially poignant in poems like “Biology Lesson 1”:
Cells need touch—
isolated cells wither,
in a blood-red sea.
This is the first in a series of short, numbered poems that renders the plain facts of cell biology in a manner that is straightforward, but telling. These poems crystallize the way Focal Point relies on image in service of story. Throughout the book, each experiential cross-section is illuminated by the story as a whole, and each, in turn, builds the story further. The relationship between the parts and the whole of Focal Point is one of its main pleasures, and the interplay of these inevitably makes one think about the implications of the focal point metaphor. We begin to consider the terror contained on the right side of the focal point diagram: the idea of infinite divergence.
As Qi attends to the everyday experience of estrangement—even, at times, from poetry itself—her tone is often matter-of-fact, like the distance of a microscope’s ocular lens from the thing looked at. But the gaze in Focal Point has a way of turning toward the quick, the heartwood, the place that is alive and tender. Qi tends to leave the image alone, letting it be final and, in the context of the poem and the collection, full. This trust in the image to carry sometimes painful implications is the book’s sharp edge, placed against the skin of memory. It reminds us that in microscopy, the focal point is not only the point at which waves converge and diverge—it’s the place where the image is created, the place where we can see.