Luminescent, Nina Powles, Seraph Press, 2017
Nina Powles’s debut poetry collection, Luminescent, is a set of five slender chapbooks in a night-sky sleeve. Each book is like a constellation, with a particular woman, its luminosity. (Auto)biography of Ghost catches a ghost who was said to haunted Queen Margaret College’s bell tower where she fell to her death; Sunflowers becomes a conversation and an homage to Katherine Mansfield; Whale Fall imagines the world of Betty Guard, perhaps the first Pākehā woman to have lived in the South Island; Her and the Flames draws upon Phyllis Porter who died at 19 when her costume caught alight in a theatrical performance; The Glowing Space Between the Stars turns to Beatrice Tinsley, a New Zealand cosmologist. There are notes in the back of each booklet that background each woman.
I love the way the poems talk to each other within each booklet and between booklets.
The poetry extends itself in imaginings, yet grounds itself in the light of an autobiographical presence and research. Motifs such as dust, moths, ghosts and dreams are like connecting lacework that render a sense of ethereal wholeness to the set. The poems accumulate exquisitely textured voice; confident and idiosyncratic, searching and still, melodic and spare, intricate and warm. Every poem is a jewel of a thing.
Sunflowers takes several Mansfield experiences as starting points for poems: she burnt all her letters and journals when she was in her early turbulent twenties; she wrote about a writing epiphany after seeing a Van Gogh painting for the first time; she recorded a dream after her brother’s death. In an early chapbook, Girls of the Drift, Nina put New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanch Baughan together in poetry. The poems offered surprising pathways into our first women poets in print alongside a young contemporary poet forging her own poetic trails. With the Mansfield poems, I feel like I am sitting in a room in the South of France, and each poem resembles an aperture in the wall that pulls me into a Mansfield dreaming.
‘Fever dream’ is without punctuation, a slim short-lined poem that sizzles with ‘s’ alliterations that cut into the feverish night. In the midst of the hissing heat (stinging scorching nerves skin simmers inside struck bones sky she rising), two words cut into the fevered skin (teeth cracking). The poem is visually alert with its storm inflected sky. What stamps the poem indelibly is the final image:
bones cracking under
a New Zealand sky
and she is the wave
rising to meet it
‘She’ is Mansfield, and in that wave of fevered self, I am hooked into Mansfield musings.
The poems tap nostalgia, calling upon the senses to electrify the page. ‘Silver dream’ is set in a London garden in 1915, where Katherine bites into the pear her brother hands her:
It tastes like jam sandwiches
and sunshine on her mother’s hair.
After physical details that light the scene, the poem shifts to dream again, to the ghost-like vein that runs through all the poems, and it’s a surprising nudge. The pear leads us to ‘where everything is silver/ and he is alive again’, and the idyllic setting shifts. We are also lead to the collection’s title, as the whole poem glows with ache and loss in subtle overlaps:
Later she plants a pear tree
in one of her stories,
makes it glow in the window,
makes it touch the moon.
Several booklets feature erasure poems, where blocks of ghostly grey enable certain words to shine out as a poem. That we can see the journal entry in ‘Lucid dream’, through the grey veil, adds to the dream-like state of shiver and float. I pictured the whole journal translated into grey-veil poems. The lines that lift up feel so apt: ‘Time/ was shaken/ out of me.’ The final word, ‘violet’, pulls back to sweet-scented earth, to that nostalgic hunt for elsewhere places and elsewhere memories.
I love this set of poetry booklets, because we still need light shining on the shadows to recover the women who did extraordinary things, or everyday things, so they form a constellation, a suite of coordinates that might shift our contemporary means of navigation.
The Glowing Space Between Stars again links to the collection’s title, and underlines the idea that poetry can light up things, experiences, relations, ideas, feelings, memory. Beatrice, the cosmologist, shows how the space between things is the domain of curiosity. And for me, that feeds back into the way poetry is also curious about the gaps between. When you enter the poem gap, you enter a luminous field that so often surprises or delights or upturns.
Nina lists things in Beatrice’s childhood room; out of these things grew the adult curiosity (did anyone do this for Einstein or Newton?). She imagines the girl at 16:
then rushing home immediately
to write down what she’s seen,
the glowing space between stars,
how it seems to have changed
since the night before.
Nina is making poems and she is making biographies, the one coming out of the other, and it is as though she is not tied to the rules of one or the rules of the other but can imagine and detour and intrude. In ‘Minutes’, the poet moves behind the galaxy facts, and the ongoing discoveries, to reveal the hiding narratives, the domestic underlay:
The light emitted by distant galaxies
takes billions of years to reach us.
It comes from a far younger universe,
somewhere where no one ever worried
about ironing their husband’s shirts
or arranging after-school childcare
because there were no ironing boards
and no children and no husbands
Five glowing booklets of poems that shine beyond the individual poems to gather a necessary and inventive, a lyrical and seismic, view of five very different women. I love this collection with its feminist energy, its poetic agility and its warm heart.
This, too, was the perfect time
to measure things in infinities.
from ‘Red (ii)’
Nina Powles, half Malasian-Chinese and half Pākehā, is from Wellington where she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University. There, she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry for Luminescent’s first draft. She writes poetry, non-fiction and makes poetry zines. Her chapbook, Girls of the Drift, was published by Seraph Press in 2014.
Seraph Press page
Nina Powles web page