A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng 

A Way of Looking
Jianqing Zheng
Silverfish Review Press
Paper, 80 Pages

New book a powerful and original collection of poetry

By Lisa McMurtray
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

In Jianqing Zheng’s new collection of poetry, “A Way of Looking,” Zheng investigates the ways loss shapes our lives and how, as the title suggests, perspective can offer new reflections on life, love, loss, and the concept of home.

Like Zheng’s past work, “A Way of Looking” is deeply invested in otherness and being caught between worlds. Here, the poet writes his experiences on living in the south and the Asian American experience, accentuated by lush verse and heartbreaking sincerity.

Told in a combination of prose and verse, Zheng combines narrative commentary on his life and experiences with quietly lyrical, snapshots of image—moonrise over a river, “a lean-to shack / blooming wisteria,” a girl holding a doll in an empty classroom, a mockingbird in the rain, a yowling cat. These images punctuate Zheng’s storytelling by distilling into singular images the broader philosophical questions this collection wrangles.

Amongst all of this, the southern landscape blooms across the page–willow catkins swaying, the still riverscape, the casino’s neon lights, a Tennessee graveyard dotted with moss. Zheng writes the world as a painter sees it, and he captures natural beauty particularly well. These descriptions anchor the collection to the physical, keeping the reader tethered to the earth. 

Comprised of four sections, “A Way of Looking” walks the reader through reflections on otherness and immigration, loss, love, and explorations of home. The first section, “On the Road,” feels very much like a travel log, populated by scenes of backroads, small towns, and picturesque landscapes. But Zheng moves through these spaces with the kind of restlessness of a traveler not accustomed to settling down but recording everything as an artist or musician does, capturing the essence—its pain and beauty—of the experience.

“Homecoming,” the last poem in this section, speaks to the dualities of being Asian American, particularly in the south, where the idea of home is never quite stable and exists always in a liminal space between two distant, unapproachable points. Home echoes through this collection as both a concept and a real place full of longing.

The final poem in “Farewell,” the second section, notes that home is “separated… / still under / the same moon.” This section, fraught with loss and grief, not just of people but of relationships, possibilities, and the aching and pervasive cultural loss inextricable from immigrating from one place to another. How do we manage that loss, Zheng seems to ask, when it accompanies us daily?

The third section, “Momentary Stay,” explores that interstitial space. Crystalized in the titular poem of the section, the speaker closes his eyes for a moment, caught in a migraine and seeking respite, if even for a second. Here, the poet pauses in the moment, finding his footing, finding comfort, even if it is a momentary one.

“Toward Forever,” acts in opposition to “Farewell” and extends naturally the pause of “Momentary Stay.” Here, the tone is contented and quietly joyous. Rather than caught between two poles—home and way, before and after—the poems in this final section pause to celebrate the gentle moments of happiness in each of our lives—the exchange of wedding rings, the riotously blooming pear tree, a shared tangerine. Even the move from one country to another is beautiful, here, in all that it brings.

The last poem of the collection, “Waiting for Spring” finds peace in loss, seeing instead the cycle of nature, the returning to and new creation that comes with death, be it a person’s or a dream’s or an era. Like the earth, this collection finds peace in the cycle, in shifting one’s view to discover, if not joy, some understanding.

Born and raised in Jackson, Lisa McMurtray holds an MFA from Florida State University and an MA in English from Mississippi State University. Her poems have appeared in “The Cincinnati Review,” “Ninth Letter,” “West Branch,” and “The Journal.”

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