‘I can never show anyone my map of Shanghai, not because it’s a secret, but because it is so huge and sprawling.’ (‘Falling City’)
Nina Mingya Powles is the editor of a small press, Bitter Melon 苦瓜, which specialises in small runs of beautifully crafted pamphlets – my copy of Jay G. Ying’s Wedding Beasts is on the couch beside me, with its sparkly gold thread, the paper slightly frayed at the perforations, the number 93 handwritten in black ink. Her own pamphlet, Seams : Traces, a study of the life and work of Korean-American poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, was risoprinted, scanned and uploaded to the Dead Women Poets website, with hand-drawn, livid red stitches running along the bottom of each page. Her book of essays, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, was published by the Emma Press last year.
I mention all this to give a flavour of Powles’ aesthetics: her painterly eye for colour and composition, her creative and critical curiosity, the minute and tactile details that form the foundations of Magnolia, 木蘭. The first and last poems of the book concern Mulan, the 1998 Disney movie, but Powles waits until the closing poem to state explicitly that the Chinese characters in her book’s title signify Mùlán, the Mandarin word for magnolia. For a monoglot anglophone reader, it’s not until these final pages that the title comes into focus, indicates clearly (to me) toward an abundance of relations and contexts. It feels like a pointed strategy on Powles’ part, if one didn’t understand until now: go back, look again, look closer.
Magnolia, 木蘭 thinks deeply about the poet’s own position relative to the subjects of her gaze, be it a Disneyfied China or a bundle of zongzi; like the handwriting on a pamphlet, there is never a comfortable distance between artist and art. In the first and last poems of the book, Powles states explicitly her unfamiliarity with the Chinese language, and her experiences of being othered by a reflexively monolithic Western (read: white/colonial/European) culture. Throughout a deeply thoughtful, perceptive, rangy collection, Powles’ lyric selves attempt to locate themselves within multiple cultures that do not or will not accommodate them.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the book is so deeply rooted in the work of other writers, artists and artworks, from journalists Robin Hyde and Eileen Chang – whose vivid accounts of 1930s Shanghai Powles explores in ‘Falling City’ – to Rothko’s Saffron to failed Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade also feels like a touchstone (I think there’s a loop of jade in the cover image of Magnolia, 木蘭), as does Will Harris’ RENDANG, in their diffusion of dramatic personae, critiques of anglophone lyric traditions, and their difficult, perhaps irresolvable questions about culture and belonging; all three collections have as a focal point an account of returning to the poet’s mother’s (and/or grandmother’s) home. In Powles’ book, the constellation of artists cited are a form of navigation, but also estrangement; describing Shanghai through the lenses of Hyde and Chang create a clear, vivid image, but of a place which has long since disappeared. Magnolia, 木蘭 is full of ghosts, shadows, bodies rendered unreal by gaps in language and time. Even Powles’ youth in Shanghai, touched on briefly in ‘Falling City’, is a haunted, painful memory:
‘I sought out exact places I had stood ten years earlier, let bright waves of nostalgia wash over me. I watched them coming from a distance.
I knew I needed to stop doing this soon or else something would break.’
There are many bright spots in the book in which Powles allows her lyric imagination to run wild, though, like ‘Wolfgirl’, in which San from Princess Mononoke makes supper, her life among the wolves seemingly faded from memory, or ‘Two portraits of home’, maybe my favourite single poem in the book, in which the contents of two photographs are simultaneously revealed and obscured:
‘morpheus butterfly wing blue albatross white
plastic-orchid blue hawthorn-blossom white
the blue of the sounds skimmed milk
the blue of the sounds the blue of the sounds unripe-mango green
distant-forest green feijoa tree green’
It’s a beautiful magic-eye trick that suggests a true, real image (the sections are named ‘[IMG_098]’ and ‘[IMG_227]’, like the automated file names of a phone or digital camera), but one rendered utterly open to interpretation, the chiral twin of the correspondent’s tone in ‘Falling City’. In both poems, Powles is trying to show the reader something easy to name – home – but impossible to recreate; maybe remaining faithful to experience demands anything but plain facts. Personally, I can’t know the feeling of travelling thousands of miles to where I might call home and arriving somewhere that refuses to fall into focus, familiarity, reality. But ‘Falling City’ and ‘Two portraits of home’, in harnessing both the essayist and the impressionist, articulate it in terms I can process. I won’t forget them in a hurry.
Other highlights include the book’s central sequence, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Here, Powles takes a strategy similar to Layli Long Soldier’s pieces on the Lakota language in Whereas, in which a single word (or name) stands untranslated at the top of the page, and the poem carefully turns it over, considering it from multiple angles. In Powles’ words: ‘I started to see the [Mandarin] characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.’ The poems describe a slow, delicate, painstaking process of learning and unlearning, beautifully summarised in a single image in the poem’s sixth section:
‘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 softly.’
Where the book’s opening poem acts as an overture or prelude, the closing poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’ functions beautifully both as an epilogue, and a kind of symbolic index. The varied aspects of magnolia proliferate here, as a tree in nature and as a word for the tree in multiple languages:
‘I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages so that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth can only hold so much.’
as a fragment of memory, or imaginative communion:
‘Mum gave me a heart of jade wrapped in pink and yellow threaded silk. It belonged to her step-grandmother, whose name I don’t know, who walked under the magnolia trees of Shanghai.’
or as artefacts of a specific cultural context:
‘The official flower of the city of Shanghai: dark trees with ghost-white buds haunt courtyards and avenues. At night they loom and glow.’
The meanings of the word and the object we’ve been gathering as readers come into flower here. ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’ opens as many thoughts as it ties up, and certainly gave me a firm push toward starting the collection over with these new contexts in mind. It’s a quietly bold move, resisting an impulse toward closure on a narrative the book makes clear is still in progress.
Beyond its work as an extended essay into culture and belonging, Magnolia, 木蘭, is a real sensory pleasure. In most Ghibli films – which seem a vital source for Powles’ imagination; her tinyletter, Comfort Food, features a shot from Ponyo (2008) – there’s at least one scene in which characters cook for each other, in which the whole frame overflows with frying eggs, or steaming broth, or bread in the oven, the warm, homely yellows and browns and greens come to life, almost giving off heat, almost giving nourishment. There aren’t many poetry books that give me a similar experience (fellow Emma Press poet Padraig Regan’s Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real comes close), and it’s a joy to see Powles’ skill with other genres offering uncommon flavours to her poetry. It’s hard to believe that Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade was just five years ago, such has been the impact of Asian and Asian-diaspora poets in these islands since. Magnolia, 木蘭, in asking far more questions than it finds conclusive answers for, in keeping its map of Shanghai as elusive to the reader as the city itself is to the poet, continues in Howe’s tradition, clearing new space, opening new avenues, planting new seeds.
Note: Hey all, trying something a little different here. Writing the long, more academic-style pieces I have in the past is fun, and fulfilling, but also very demanding in terms of time and energy. We’ll see how it goes in terms of consistency, but I’d like this blog to go back to being something like a reading diary, with more, shorter posts. Maybe I’ll do two this month and never again, but it felt good to put this piece together. In any case, happy new year, sending love and energy to you and yours, and thank you for reading. Thanks also, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.