Poetry Shelf review: Nina Mingya Powles’s MAGNOLIA 木蘭

Nina Mingya Powles, MAGNOLIA 木蘭, Seraph Press, 2020

鸣 (míng), the cry of animals and insects, rhymes with tooth, which rhymes with precipice, which rhymes with the first part of my Chinese name.

I am full of nouns and verbs; I don’t know how to live any other way. I am a tooth-like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.

Certain languages contain more kinds of rain than others, and I have eaten them all.

from ‘Fieldnotes on a downpour’

I have been a fan of Nina Mingya Powles’s poetry since her chapbook Girls of the Drift (2014) through to her glorious poetry boxset Luminescent (2017). The poems are probing, lyrical, self-inquisitive, with women placed centre stage. Her new collection Magnolia 木蘭was also published in the UK (Nine Arches Press) and was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Poetry Prize, and won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing the following year.

Currently living in London, Nina is a poet, zine-maker and nonfiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā descent. I have long been fascinated with the idea that poetry is way of writing home, whether home is physical, on the move, a state of mind, ancestral connections, familial relations, an anchor, an epiphany. And if poetry is a way of writing home it is also a way of writing to / for / with / by / underneath / inside / from (home). Magnolia is an organic version of this as it shifts languages on the tongue, layers sensual detail, raises identity questions, and moves from London to Shanghai to Aotearoa. Smells and tastes of elsewhere bring elsewhere closer to the point the paper is imbued with scent and living matter, and your reading taste buds pop.

there are only dream mountains high above the cloudline

I come from a place full of mountains and volcanoes

I often say when people ask about home

from ‘Night train to Anyang’

Senses are on alert as you read a Nina Powles poem, and I love the physical sensation as you read:

After Mulan saves China / fireworks rain down in waves of multi-coloured

stars

from ‘Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) / in Englsih with subtitles

Food is an exquisite presence, often connecting you to place, a particular memory or event, love, home. But sometimes Nina lingers on food for the sheer pleasure of food itself: it’s tofu for the love and sake of tofu, lotus leaves and sticky rice ‘sucked clean’. I have felt a similar addictive tastebud reaction reading the poetry of Ian Wedde, particularly The Commonplace Odes.

for the morning after a downpour

Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly

opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of dòufu

huā, literally tofu flower, slips down in one swallow. The

texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down

fast and washed the city clean.

from ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’

Colour is equally vital, sometimes the hue of the land is evoked but, at other times, the tone of a particular painting is foregrounded. It makes a difference that I have stood in the Tate Gallery in London and felt the astonishing hum of Rothko’s colour palate, and have imbibed the colour in Agnes Martin’s equally heavenly paintings. I am curious that Nina’s poems, so active with colour, affect me as much as the artworks. It is as though the poem and the artwork are placed on my wrist like perfume and I feel the colour-pulse streaming through. Really the whole experience is both words and greater than words. Really it is as though a poem has the ability to hum inside us. Like colour.  

#fee10c | saffron: pigment in medieval manuscripts

If I could step inside any Rothko painting it would be Saffron

(1957), which is different from his other yellows because of the thin

bright line that divides the colour fields, not colour shapes or colour

squares or colour blocks, none of which are wide enough to contain

the light. A line dividing two yellow atmospheres glows along the

edges, an electric current. If you stare long enough it seems to get

bigger, slowly opening at one end until it forms a bright gap that

you could just fit through by putting each one of your limbs inside,

one by one, until you are swallowed by light and your skin is the

colour of sunflower petals right before they die and you are either

floating or drowning or both at the same time.

from ‘Colour fragments’

Reading Nina’s collection, I keep fine-tuning what a poem can do. One moment it is the origami bud unfolding in my palm to expose surprising petals of feeling. The next moment she retraces her steps though a city she once lived in; walking and writing through the city and subsequently the miniature poem version. We choose how we move through the poem as miniature city, me on tiptoe, slowly, slowly. This experience is deeply affecting in ‘Falling city’, where the poet lived when young, where she is falling in love, where things have changed and things have remained constant. Nina is seeing and imagining and writing Shanghai by walking; and by reading Shanghai writer Eileen Chang / Zhāng Àilíng, by reading Robin Hyde, by reading maps (‘each person has their own secret map’), visiting ramen bars, musing on ‘New Woman’.

18. What was Chang herself like? I don’t know, but I think she

understood this moment when the dream and the real begin to blur.

She understood how the sky in Shanghai contains many different

colours at once: “At the horizon the morning colours were a layer of

green, a layer of yellow, and a layer of red like a watermelon cut open.”

19. When reading her stories in translation it’s like trying to see

her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am

standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.

20. As autumn deepened I expected to see your face on the street

or in the subway station. After you left I thought I might feel sad

that this possibility could no longer exist. Instead after a while the

outlines of trees looked sharper, like a fog had lifted.

from ‘Falling city’

The shortish middle sequence, ‘Field notes on a downpour’, is a favourite. There is a hunger for words that fit, for Mandarin fluency, for her mother whose name means rain and language, together meaning ‘cloud tints’. In its intimacy, small details, flâneur pace, mother closeness, disappearances, its repeating motifs, particularly clouds and rain, its naming and its confessions, its love yearnings, this sequence is succulent poetry. And I keep musing on why I am so attracted to the making of poetry, whether writing it reading it, and that it maybe comes down to poems that move into and from the heart of the matter. I don’t mean it has to be full of feeling. I don’t mean it has to fit the facts or perceived realities. I mean it navigates poetic truths: that on certain occasions, in certain places, for a particular person, radiating multiple lights and nuances, this is how it is. In this crumpled and self-challenging world – poetry flicks on the human switch. I am musing this because Nina’s incandescent poetry navigates a bundle of vital questions on who and how and where she is. On what being a particular human in a particular place means to her. On when being asked where you come from digs deep. On needing to eat words. On feeling the rain in all its colours. On being in love.

In order to make learning Mandarin easier, I started to see the

characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.

魔 (mó), spoken like a murmur, an evil spirit or demon.

One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost

鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with a path

between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which

rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin

blood vessels.

In June the cicadas were so loud we thought the trees would swallow

us whole.

from ‘Field notes on a downpour’

I turn to the blurb on the back of the book and see so many of the words that have guided my reading: hunger, longing, home, mixed-race, languages, women, colour, rain. Magnolia 木蘭 is origami poetry – it will unfold in your body as you read. It is miniature-city poetry that will reinstate multiple existences of home. It is rain poetry that will fall as gleaming light and stomach nourishment and tattoo your skin. It is love poetry and disappearance poetry. It is heart poetry and human poetry that, in this extraordinary year, will get you contemplating your own downpours and magnolias, and in those musings discover poetry solace. Oh, and it has my favourite cover of the year: an image by Kerry Ann Lee (Allora, 2017), and it is lovingly produced by Helen Rickerby and Seraph Press. Glorious!

I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages too so

that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth

can only hold so much.

from ‘Magnolia, jade orchard, she-wolf’

Nina Mingya Powles is a poet, zinemaker and non-fiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā heritage, currently living in London. She is the author of a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press, 2020), poetry box-set Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017), and several poetry chapbooks and zines, including Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014). In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Women Poets’ Prize, and in 2019 won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing. Magnolia 木蘭 was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Nina has an MA in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington and won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a risograph press that publishes limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian writers. Her collection of essays, Small Bodies of Water, is forthcoming from Canongate Books in 2021. 

Seraph Press page

Poetry Book Society review

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf review: Nina Mingya Powles’s MAGNOLIA 木蘭

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Brilliant longlist of Ockam New Zealand Book Awards just announced | NZ Poetry Shelf

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