Of all the literary arts, poetry is the one most tightly tied to culture. Fiction has stories and non-fiction has facts, both of which exist independently of the words used to express them. Poetry, however, is the words, and along with the words, the shades of meaning and context that culture brings along.
Imbued with nostalgia, hunger and multilingual memories, Magnolia, 木蘭 is a refreshing debut collection by Nina Mingya Powles, a poet of Malaysian-Chinese heritage from New Zealand currently residing in London. Shortlisted for the Forward Prize, the book chronicles a mixed-race woman’s myriad perspectives on her cultural heritage, language and her border-crossing journeys.
Having recently reviewed Matty Weingast’s attractive collection of poems from the Therigatha, I was somewhat surprised to see that Shambhala had decided to reissue an newly-expanded version of Songs of the Sons and Daughters of Buddha (1996), given that the female half was already available in Weingast’s excellent and sensitively-handled new version. However, in addition to the fact that this edition includes male poets, the choice of female poets is not always identical, and of course it’s also interesting to see how different translators treat the same poems.
Michael Prior’s second poetry collection Burning Province opens with a stark image, one that speaks to the trauma and intergenerational memory that carries through the volume.
Chinese remains inaccessible to most English-speakers; Chinese poetry doubly so, so Western readers should be grateful to Zephyr Press for issuing these two excellent bilingual versions of contemporary Chinese poetry, which introduce us to two unfamiliar and very different voices, Ya Shi from the mainland, and Wu Sheng from Taiwan.
Interrogating the complexities of love, history and the power of naming through refreshing experimentation in language and form, Flèche—winner of 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry—is a significant and original contribution to Hong Kong poetry as well as to the current scene of British Asian diasporic voices.
Cambodian-American poet Monica Sok recalls transgeneration trauma in her debut collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On. Born in Pennsylvania to parents who have sought refuge in the United States, Sok retraces the contours of a difficult and important conversation on identity. She succeeds in using her Americanness to question her sense of belonging in the Cambodian narrative, while inviting the reader in two countries’ complex political history.