(REVIEW) Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles
Fintan Calpin reviews Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles
(Nine Arches Press, 2020), exploring the poetics of colour, food, translation, the politics of form and many other selections from the book's vibrant bouquet of affect, thought and history.
> In ‘Colour Fragments’, my favourite poem in this debut collection, the poet dreams ‘of building a museum of all the colours in the world’. I have the book turned to this poem, holding it open on my desk by pinning the recto page down under my left elbow. I’m using both hands to type the HTML colour codes – subtitles for each of the five sections of this prose poem – into Google to see the colours that come up: ‘#5c85d2 | blue smoke: melting clouds’, ‘#cc7722 | deep ochre: iron oxide’, ‘#fe02d4 | magenta: neon dreams’, ‘#3e3d3e | smoke black: peach stones’, ‘#fee10c | saffron: pigment in Medieval manuscripts’. The poem is interrupted by the monochrome blocks like giant pixels on my screen, like ‘colours in their purest forms; a museum of memories stripped down’. Magnolia, 木蘭 (2020) invites us into this dream building where colour hyperlinks to memory, where experience is pared down to code, where bytes of data can represent larger complex wholes, ‘the tints and shades of different feelings’ like pixels on a screen.
> Yet in this poem and across the collection, there is a poignant attention to the minutiae that make up larger systems, of ‘my nerve endings, like a million tiny solar flares’. Poignant, because the poetry of experience inheres at once in its subsumption within impersonal structures and its resistance to them: the capacity for the everyday life of the senses to overflow systems of representation, for the individual to exceed their position as Subject. By focussing on concrete particulars – a colour, a magnolia tree, ‘a red taste in my mouth’ – this poem harmonises the antagonism between subjective and objective experience, between ‘feelings, and the objects that colour them’. These fragments ask us to see the ‘purest forms’ of colour as image, space, memory and sensation at once, each shade as a room to step inside. Within the poem’s artifice, this dream building emerges from a shared desire for collective perception. The poem tells a fractious narrative that is diaristic and intimate but always mediated, whether by phone screens (‘you sent me pictures of all the yellow you could find’) or mass media (‘like American film directors who confuse modern Asian cities for their post-apocalyptic sex fantasies’). Which is the more real, the world or its representation? ‘Answer: it is all real’.
> I type the hex colour codes into Google; the colour fragments the poem. Colour codes work here as a metonym for the ways in which ‘the internet takes on a phenomenology identical to encountering everyday life’, in the words of Mau Baiocco. The web’s immediacy belies the labour, exploitation and material infrastructure underpinning it.[i] The poem’s play on the abstract and concrete becomes a refusal of either’s limitations, an experiment in living through and against the radical decontextualizations that systems of mediation produce and the abstractly visual subject formed by RGB pixels. In these poems, this antagonism is at the heart of aesthetic form. ‘Colour Fragments’ ends with the poet imagining herself stepping into Rothko’s Saffron (1957), staring at its ‘colour fields’ until she is ‘swallowed by light’ and left ‘either floating or drowning or both at the same time’. These are poems which ask what is gained and lost in the translations back and forth between reality and poetic form: translations from past to present, experience to memory, sensation to expression, identity to language, one language to another.
> Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Aotearoa New Zealand who lives in London. She has published several pamphlets including Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017) and is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a risograph press that publishes poetry pamphlets by Asian writers. Readers of Magnolia, 木蘭 who are unfamiliar with Powles’ work will be unsurprised to learn that she is also the author of a food and travel memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (2020) from The Emma Press, as well as the winner of the 2019 Nan Shepherd Prize for nature writing with her forthcoming essay collection Small Bodies of Water. I say unsurprised, because nature, food and place constitute not only core themes of this collection but its very texture. Many of the poems take ordering, preparing and eating food as their scene. In ‘Breakfast in Shangai’, the poet prescribes food and drink for different scenarios and ailments: pǔ'ěr tea and bāozi ‘for a morning of coldest smog’ or shuǐjiǎo ‘for homesickness’. There’s a haunting, elegiac recipe for spring onion pancakes in a poem of the same name. These everyday scenarios are détourné with personal reflections and flights of thought which are wistful and troubling, like ‘Something inside me uncurling. A hunger that won’t go away’. Colour recurs as a motif, as in ‘Two portraits of home’, which recalls ‘Colour Fragments’ in its reference to image file names ‘[IMG_098]’ and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814). Powles reduces these (unseen) images to instances of colour only to expand them through vivid, nostalgic epithets that again play the abstract against the concrete: ‘kōwhai-petal yellow’ and ‘enamel bowl rim blue’. These poems evoke the full range of the sensorium and delight in synaesthesia, bytes of colour data turning to bites of honey pomelo in the mouth. Flowers blossom, rain pours, halogen glows and volcanoes rumble. We’re told that in the traditional characters of Mandarin Chinese, the word for magnolia, mùlán, is ‘composed of 木 which means wood, and 蘭 which means orchid’. The eponymous tree grows through the spine of this collection, putting up shoots in different poems.
> While I have emphasised (I hope fairly) Powles’ focus on the small, sensory details of everyday life, this risks understating her exquisite play of language – or languages, in this polyglot book. In my reading, the trick to these poems is the way concrete nouns and empirical references become slippery, porous and polysemous, at turns hollow, layered, rebellious, pure content and pure form. The poems impose a distance, formally and semantically, between words and their meaning, the utterance and its speaker, that maps thematically onto the poet’s sense of dislocation. In an interview with Jacket2, Powles has discussed the feeling of being ‘dislocated, distanced’ from the cultures of both New Zealand and her heritage. ‘Always homesick for somewhere else – this is pretty much my default state of being, wherever I am in the world. I have, and will always have, multiple homes: Wellington, Shanghai, Kota Kinabalu (in Malaysia, where my mum was born), Beijing (where my parents now live, so I’m tethered somehow), and London’.[ii] ‘Night train to Anyang’ exemplifies this sense of remoteness, whether from your immediate surroundings or your homes:
light changes as we cross into neon clouds voices flicker through the moving dark like dream murmurs moving through the body red and silver 汉字 glow from building tops floating words I can’t read rising into bluest air they say there are mountains here but I can’t see them 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 when I shut my eyes I see a ring of flames and volcanoes erupting somewhere far away when I open my eyes snow is falling like ash
Careful grammatical parallelisms using the simple present tense and present participles develop across four tercets. The unpunctuated text allows images to accrete as the poet’s gaze moves from outside to in, a movement we’re drawn into by deixis in ‘we’, ‘they’ and ‘here’. Subtle hypallage in ‘moving dark’, ‘floating words’ and ‘dream mountains’ mystifies otherwise lucid images to create something dreamlike, unsettled. Dwelling on words that can’t be read and mountains that can’t be seen, the poem limns an illegible history of displacement which precedes and surrounds it. This is an elegy not only for home, but for language itself – for one’s separation from and proximity to it, as well as what is beyond its limits.
> In the third part of this collection, language, and specifically language learning, becomes the guiding theme of both content and form. The poems explore Mandarin Chinese, Māori and Hakka and, as is clear from the poem quoted above, habitually introduce these languages into the text. The memory which brackets this collection is of watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles – the iconic figure of Chinese culture Huā Mùlán whose name, as we learnt, gives the collection its title. Some of the most moving and formally inventive poems evoke the possibilities and limitations of multilingualism (‘Mother tongue / 母语’, ‘Dreaming in a language I can’t speak’) or subvert the methods and media of language acquisition (‘Mixed girl’s Hakka phrasebook’). In ‘Alternate words for mixed-race’ Powles reappropriates the apparently banal space of the footnote to devastating effect, recalling the poem ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ by Ocean Vuong. I know hardly a word of the languages Powles uses and explores besides English, so can’t attest to the riches I am sure these poems offer for speakers of one or more of these languages. For me, the incorporation of other languages made for a sort of language game, encouraging a close and fruitful engagement with my own experience of reading. If these poems are ever frustrating for the monoglot then they are intentionally so. Moments of untranslatability and incomprehension challenge the reader to re-evaluate their sphere of comprehension, while also referencing the poet’s somewhat anxious relationship to these languages. Moreover, these poems are reflexive about the poet’s role as self-interpreter. Most often they provide their own translations, while always drawing attention to their provisional quality. In ‘Black vinegar blood’, the poem ends by tracing the polysemy of the Chinese character for vinegar. It can mean ‘jealous’ when speaking of a love affair, ‘and represents one of the four flavours: 酸 (sour) / which can also mean: acidic, sick at heart, a tingling ache’. Other poems, like the eight-sectioned ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’, riff on the ideogrammatic nature of Chinese logograms like the character for wave, which is written by putting together those for skin and water. There is a heuristic element to reading here, which engages our close attention to the characters on the page.
> In this regard, Magnolia, 木蘭 is in dialogue with the work of avant-garde author and artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and especially the genre-bending Dictée (1982), a poetic novel-cum-collage which incorporates history and memoir. Explicitly so, as at the time of writing Powles has just published a zine in response to Cha’s life and works, Seams : Traces (2020), with Dead [Women] Poets Society, available to read for free here. In Dictée, Cha incorporates untranslated Chinese, French and Korean in a complex, multi-layered text that articulates some of the postcolonial and diasporic histories of Korean Americans in the 20th century. As poet and critic Juliana Spahr puts it, ‘Cha is well aware that language and nation and power all tend to walk hand in hand’.[iii] In the scenes of dictation from which the book takes its name, Cha shows how language acquisition is not a neutral cognitive activity but also a mode of subject creation tied, in the context of occupied Korea, to experiences of subjugation and dreams of freedom. The slippages of dictation, what Spahr calls ‘mutant recitation’, turn ‘a passive act that mimics brainwashing into an active one with its own, often political, agenda’. For Lisa Lowe famously, this political agenda had important implications for the interpretation of Asian American as well as minority literatures more generally. Dictée, she writes, ‘continually thwarts the reader’s desire to abstract a notion of ethnic or national identity – originating either from the culture’s interrogation of its margins, or in emergent minority efforts to establish unitary ethnic or cultural nationalist examples’.[iv] Like Dictée, Magnolia, 木蘭 explores the ways in which the daily experiences of diaspora and displacement highlight how the individual is never seamlessly interpellated into subject positions formed by abstracting notions of ethnic and national identity. This excess is, as Spahr suggests, a space of politics, a site of material struggle with legacies of both possibility and pain: ‘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’.
> I think that the poems in this collection might be usefully understood through the lens of what Chris Chen calls ‘racial form’. To outline his argument briefly, Chen traces a divide in dominant narratives of postwar anglophone poetry between a ‘politics of form’ and ‘a poetics of identity’. I am hugely oversimplifying, but I understand this essentially as a racialized distinction between a trajectory of formally experimental verse that ‘denaturalize[s] the lyric subject’ in a fluid play of identity, versus ‘racially marked’ poetry that seeks to articulate and reclaim marginalized identities. In disarticulating this dichotomy, Chen proposes ‘racial form’ as a ‘hinge concept’, that ‘mediates between race understood as a structure of domination on the one hand, and as an affirmative subject of liberation, group solidarity, and shared history on the other’. Borrowed from Colleen Lye via Raymond Williams, racial form moves ‘beyond the idiom or “container” of identity’ to a way of describing historically specific structures of social relations as well as processes of subject formation and self-expression. What racial form then offers is a ‘context for poetic experimentation’, a way ‘to reflexively interrogate the parameters of racial representation within contemporary poetic works where explicit racial reference may be absent’.[v]
> Perhaps the best illustration of how Powles’ collection follows on from the work of Cha is in the poem ‘Conversational Chinese’. Through the gaps in a fill-in-the-blanks exercise and answers to untranslated Chinese questions, the poem reconstructs the obscured, semi-legible history of a family’s displacement:
Some years later, when the ___ started up in the streets, she looked at the sea and longed to send her children across it, far away, where they would be ___, where she would one day visit them.
The lyric subject mediated by the prewritten text emerges at a distance, indeed from their distance to the language and what it tries to represent. At once metaphorical and strikingly literal, the framing of the language exercise indexes both the expressive limits of poetic form and the poet’s very tangible encounters with form in the textures of lived experience and social organisation. When aesthetic form is so strictly delimited, how can the poem attempt the monumental task of grasping in one hand an intimate personal history and in the other the intertwined structures of power and geopolitical histories of violence? Powles’ significant contribution to lyric and elegiac form is her inflection of such a poetics of dislocation with a poignant intimacy across personal, historical and political distances: ‘They scattered her ashes over the sea off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, within sight of the blue mountain made of clouds’. The representative drama in these poems is the struggle to articulate un-representable social relations which give colour and shape to everyday encounters with language, food, places, media, family, sentiment, education, memory. In Magnolia, 木蘭, Nina Mingya Powles has given us a poetics of translation not only between languages but between the spatial and temporal, the personal and historical – between poetic and social forms.
Text: Fintan Calpin
[i] Mau Baiocco, ‘(SPAM Cuts) The Noughties, by Dom Hale’, https://www.spamzine.co.uk/post/spam-cuts-the-noughties-by-dom-hale, 2nd July 2020. [ii] Vaughan Rapatahana, ‘These ladies are not afraid to rage against the machines’, https://jacket2.org/commentary/kiwi-asian-women-poets, 27thFebruary 2019. [iii] Juliana M. Spahr, ‘Postmodernism, Readers, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictée”, College Literature, 23.3 (1996). [iv] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Duke University Press, 1996). [v] Chris Chen, ‘The Opacity of Racial Form’, Post45, https://post45.org/2019/04/the-opacity-of-racial-form#footnote_8_10193, 22nd April 2019.