“Everyone I love is dead or dying”
Death marks our lives in unspeakable ways, causing all living creatures to cope however we can. Magpies hold their own version of funerals, covering bodies with blades of grass. Chimpanzees carry their dead young around until their bodies fall to pieces. Focal Point by Jenny Qi (winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Award) explores the process of reconciling one’s grief while asking an essential question: How do we move on with the rest of the world?
Throughout Focal Point, Qi weaves a world at odds with the death of her speaker’s mother. “First Spring, 2011” reminds me of a lyric in Mitski’s “Working for the Knife”: “I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me”. Qi’s poem “First Spring, 2011” opens with “Everyone I love is dead or dying / The sun shines garishly bright / The ice is melting. Things are growing. / Birds are fucking in the sky.” The duality of change. With life, there is loss. Yet it all feels wrong. One of the most jarring things about grief is not that the world moves on: it is that the world moves on so quickly and seamlessly.
One of the most unique aspects of Focal Point is the engagement with science and experimentation. From the opening poem, “Point at Which Parallel Waves Converge & From Which Diverge” (which is the definition of a “focal point”), the connection between the speaker’s loss and their scientific career is apparent. Throughout the opening poem, she reflects on her necessary sacrifices while “stroking their white fur in apology; / covering cages with paper so they can’t watch their sisters die.” Qi creates a gut-wrenching portrait of grief where her speaker’s attempts to give meaning to loss are often not enough.
“I think how cruelly futile all this
erratically focused empathy, how brutal
to learn why I couldn’t save
what I couldn’t save.”
No matter progress in science, research, or career, it will always be marred by loss; it is all impossible without death.
“Laboratory Observations” continues this juxtaposition of life, progress, and death by observing a “Poor unhappy grad student” with his “hooded eyes gazing downward”. As the man comes more clearly into focus the speaker makes a vital realization: he is pushing a stroller. It is then that the speaker realizes that the man “looked at ease for once” with his “publications forgotten, / experiments on hold”. The focal point of this man’s life was – for now – on his child, and he was better off for it. He is holding a new life. The speaker never brings her own narrative into this poem, nor does she have to for readers to understand the weight of this juxtaposition.
While it often feels impossible to write something new about death, Jenny Qi has done it. Focal Point is beautiful and haunting, perfectly encapsulating the range of loss and curiosity. How do we move on with the rest of the world? We do not, but we try anyway.