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Review: Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles

The poems in Nina Mingya Powles’s debut Magnolia, 木蘭 are stronger for the braiding of repeated threads; longing, colour, pilgrimage, and memory return often to add strength and flexibility to the lines. Even the dual and translated title is a preview of the power behind the binding of two languages on a tongue and in a mind. Where Powles excels in Magnolia, 木蘭 is in showing us the colours of her woven world.  

Colour is one feature of Powles’s vision as a student of language, interpreting the fault lines between the logographic and spoken aspects of Chinese. Because the speaker in the opening poem ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’ only understands ‘some of the words’ while watching the film, her ‘focus shifts to [other] details’. Likewise, colour can become more pronounced in our experience of reality when some part of that experience has been shut off, or, in the case of second-language acquisition, when something we are used to understanding without effort is suddenly processed differently in the mind.

The opening sense depicted in the poem is not sight, however, but hearing:

I remember the sound the sword made / when she cut off all her hair 

a sound like my mother cutting fabric / those blue scissors / clutched 
in her small hands

Hearing shifts quickly to sight in the second stanza above: the image of fabric, the woven thread tied to the memory of the collection’s most repeated colour: ‘blue’. Colour, like the poem’s subject, Mulan, returns near the end of the poem but with a crucial change:

When Mulan returns home the colours change from greybluegreen to 
pinkwarmyellow / there are plum blossoms floating in the stream 

her hair is still a little messy / to make sure we don’t forget

she used to be something else

In the poem, a shift in colour suggests a shift in vision. Like the meaning of words overheard since childhood finally clicking into place, Powles’s world focuses as she draws closer to Chinese. The form of the poem mirrors this movement toward focus and layered meaning as well: the interior forward slashes visible in the lines above, and repeated throughout the book, serve as reminders of that scissor-like cutting of the line, the possibility of the slight pause a cut line could render despite its breaking elsewhere. These forward slashes are thus able to convey two possibilities at once, like the ‘messy’ hair in Mulan’s animation meant to convey both consistency and age. 

When it comes to form generally, ‘Falling City’ is perhaps the best example of what readers should expect to find in Magnolia, 木蘭. The speaker states her intention baldly: ‘I arrived in the city to learn Chinese.’ But she then reports on another purpose; ‘Falling City’ divides her report into 32 prose notes, organised as a meditation on her search for the writer Eileen Chang, who spent much of her youth in Shanghai. Notes and lists, however, regardless of their lyrical quality, can often spoil the possibility of surprise. Some poems toward the book’s second half are guilty of this expectation.

In ‘Falling City’, Powles ties two familiar threads for us to follow: identity and colour. Here is the speaker’s experience of nostalgia conflated with Chang’s, pilgrim and pilgrimage fused:

        I sought out exact places
where I had stood ten years earlier, let bright waves of nostalgia
wash over me. I watched them coming from a distance.

And here, their shared passion for colour:

         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.”

Powles includes the HEX codes for the colours she describes through ekphrasis in another poem titled ‘Colour fragments’, juxtaposing these with memories of a relationship and allusions to famous art. As a result, many of these poems feel documentary-adjacent, like the marriage of historical texts to the kaleidoscopic vision of a light- and colour-sensitive poet. But these tendencies and fascinations for Powles find their most complete fusion in the single middle-section poem ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’, another informative examination of Chinese characters filtered through personal history and memory. The section marked ‘六’ reveals the speaker’s thrill and exasperation at the elusive nature of meaning:

Some things make perfect sense, like the fact that 波 (wave) is
made of skin (皮) and water (氵) but most things do not. 

That night there were cracks in the ceiling where the rain fell
through and dripped down the back of your T-shirt, then onto
my arm. 

Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written (in the poem ‘Arabic’) about the ‘shame’ of ‘[living] on the brink’ of a language tied to one’s ethnicity but not that person’s native tongue. In Nye’s poem, the speaker is left ‘tugging / [Arabic’s] rich threads without understanding / how to weave the rug’. ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’ closes with a new metaphor for a similar kind of grappling with language and meaning:

Two days ago I smashed a glass jar of honey on the kitchen floor.
The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing

One could see a life in that image, or a season of that life – certainly a book of poetry. Like a jar of honey shattered either by accident or intention, the fluid poetry in this collection ‘[collapses] / softly’ even as it clings to some past shape of order. One might also see here a metaphor for fractured or hybrid identities, how these often move towards some new shape even while holding the glass that gave them form. Powles’s debut celebrates that breaking and its shifting beauty. 

Mario Chard is the author of Land of Fire (Tupelo Press, 2018). An inaugural fellow for the U.S. Emerging Poetry Critics program and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Nine Arches Press)

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