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.
Powles translates her longing to be understood or accepted into vivid glimpses of a personal world. Her poems are marked by their strikingly visual, sensuous and ephemeral quality, inviting the reader into a world rich in colors and textures.
What is so distinctive in this collection is Powles’s myth-making and original approach in representing personal history. In the prose poem “Girl Warrior, or: Watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English Subtitles” one learns how every Chinese word always has more than one meaning. In this poetic narrative in fragments, the speaker alludes to her enjoyment and limited understanding of the movie Mulan, an ancient Chinese myth about a girl who disguises herself as a man and takes her father’s place in the army:
When I watch Mulan in Chinese with English subtitles
I understand only some of the words
My focus shifts to certain details
how Mulan drags a very large cannon across the snow
with very small wrists
This cinematic representation of the film scenes allows the reader to share the eagerness to embrace a culture that belongs to, and eludes, her. In the last part of the poem, it is as if she has assimilated Mulan’s feminist spirit and boldness in her dreams, assertive about who she is and the many ways she can express herself:
I paint my lips
I draw avalanches
I light fires inside dream palaces
I cut my hair over the bathroom sink
Many of Powles’s poems are filled with nostalgia and myths, mapping a curious range of dreamlike realities. For example, in “Mid-autumn Moon Festival 2016”, the poet conveys the significance of the festival to the Chinese community through the use of such evocative, well-crafted language:
At dusk we sit outside cutting mooncakes
into squares with a plastic knife, peering
at their insides: candied peanut or purple yam,
matcha or red bean?
Observing the festival, the two young people are seated “outside”, yet they can’t help but become curious about what lies “inside” these mooncakes. They reach for the meaning of words with the help of technology:
We look up the Chinese name
for persimmon on my phone, 杮子, we taste the word
we cut it open, wondering at how it sounds
so like the word for lion, 狮子，lion fruit
like a tiny roaring sun, shiny lion fruit.
By incorporating and comparing the Chinese characters, the speaker immerses herself in the complexity of meanings and possibilities, capturing the intimate relationship between self-hood and language.
Section two of the book, “Field Notes on a Downpour”, is a textured long poem that captures the multiple, shifting dimensions of a bilingual mind. Yet the poem is more than a negotiation of linguistic terms. While
[s]ome things make perfect sense, like the fact that (wave) is made of skin (皮) and water (氵) but most things do not.
In another part of the poem, the speaker confesses:
There is always something disappearing here. The skyline goes dark at 10:30p.m. Old buildings are crushed to pieces and replaced by shopping malls. The subway map rewrites itself at night.
Refusing to explain what the above means and juxtaposing these observations along with terms that have more lucid meanings, the poet recounts the constant gap between what is said and what is meant, between what can be explained and what can’t, when she lives in China.
Throughout the collection, form is constantly invested with meaning. In “Styrofoam love poem”, the poet pictures with stark humor the ambiguity of the “Chinese dream” in the form of instant cup noodles:
my skin gets its shine from Maggi noodle packets
golden fairy dust that glows when touching water
fluorescent lines around the edge
a girlhood seen through sheets of rainbow plastic
Tinged with feelings of guilt, the speaker explores in metaphorical terms the symptom of a society deeply entrenched in consumerism, and the individual’s potential threat to the environment:
if we consume it all maybe we’ll never die
never break down
I’ll never be your low-carb paleo queen…
Through its inventive forms and a richly textured and nuanced language, Magnolia,木蘭 is an impressive, eloquent debut collection that offers multiple layers of meaning about home, identity, language and womanhood. With an assured, imaginative voice that embraces multilingual expressions and hybridity of forms, Powles reveals the convergence and gaps that exist between the personal and the universal, the authentic and the foreign, and a willingness to translate one’s complex, multicultural identity into being.