“My mouth a river in full bloom”: A review of Magnolia, 木蘭

by Nina Mingya Powles

By Madeleine Ballard

I first read Nina Mingya Powles’ Magnolia, 木蘭 sitting in a London flat, in a room in which I had spent almost all my waking and sleeping hours for the last three months. It was June 2020. Outside, every tree was in full bloom and England was counting deaths. Into this fragile existence came images of home: of “feijoa tree green” and “ua kōwhai” and “breaths of sand & salt & January sun / carried on a southern galeforce wind to this place that always tastes the same”.

Magnolia, 木蘭, which is up for an Ockham Award this year, is clearly the work of someone who calls Aotearoa home. But these are also the poems of someone with a complex sense of what home is: someone who belongs in more than one city, and who knows what it’s like to feel foreign and homesick. Powles is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā heritage and grew up in Wellington and Shanghai. She now lives in London. This, her first full poetry collection, tells a story I haven’t heard before but have always longed to, that of mixed-race Asian experience at home and abroad.

Powles pays tender attention to the conversation between self and place. Seeing a kōwhai tree in North London, she writes, “I breathe yellow, I breathe myself home”. In Shanghai, meanwhile, “When I stand under the lights of the city it’s hard to separate out what is real”. Wist and homesickness are frequent themes: Powles is constantly asking the question of where she belongs; of how London talks to Shanghai talks to Wellington. In a poem titled “Mother tongue”, she muses, “what if my mother never left this place […] / I would have different-coloured hair / and different-coloured eyes / I would speak to Popo all the time”. In April Kōwhai, she writes, “here I would have never breathed an ocean / never held mountains in my hands / except in almost-dreams / in which long white clouds drift / almost close enough to touch”. 

Like many of Aotearoa’s most successful female writers who left their home country — Katherine Mansfield, Fleur Adcock, Robin Hyde — Powles finds herself caught between two homes that clarify each other. Living in Shanghai throws Wellington into relief, and vice versa. Hyde, while living in Shanghai in 1938, “dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses were a fairy-tale’”. Powles’ speaker has the same experience, inverted: “Back home in Wellington for a few weeks in the summer, those first few nights in my childhood bedroom, I dreamed of plane trees, rain-soaked streets, a night sky that is never dark”. What complicates matters for Powles, and what makes her poetry so stirring, is that living in Shanghai is more than just an unusual adventure for her — it is a journey (not quite) home. She looks at China through the eyes of someone who is somehow both foreign and at home there — an experience known intimately to the Chinese diaspora in Aotearoa, but until recently, infrequently represented in our literature.

Part of attending to a place is attending to that place’s language(s). Powles writes beautifully in English: I found myself closing my eyes after lines like “the downpour knows how to be alone”. But other languages, including Hakka, te reo, and especially Mandarin, offer a whole other set of polysemies. Frequently, Powles ‘unpacks’ Mandarin words for us: “A colloquial word for ‘humid’ is 闷 mèn […] The character is made up of a heart 心 inside a door 门”. She also glosses the associations between Mandarin words, which are heavy with poetic possibility unavailable in English: “One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with a path between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels”. This is a writer who revels in linguistic richness.

But Powles also does an exceptional job writing around linguistic gaps. She acknowledges where meanings are opaque — “We come up against a word I don’t know. She draws the character in the air with one finger and it hangs there between us” — and sees expressive opportunity in those impasses as well as uncertainty. She shows us how to read physical details as a kind of visual language: “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”. She embraces silences and fragmentation: the collection’s longest poem consists of 32 micro-paragraphs, while poems like “What we talk about when we talk about home” and “Mother tongue” feature empty space and missing punctuation pregnant with meaning. “Conversational Chinese”, a poem in the form of a ‘fill in the gaps’ exercise followed by a multilingual Q&A, is literally premised on linguistic gaps and silence. Field Notes on a Downpour, the extended poem about learning Mandarin at the centre of this book, is not only composed of fragments and written in both Mandarin and English, but also prickles with images of disappearing (“the wet leaves from last night’s rain had already been swept away”) and liminality (“There are so many things I am trying to hold together”).

Like Powles, I come from a family where multiple languages are spoken, only some of which I understand. Her representation of how simultaneously frustrating and exciting this is felt almost painfully true to life. It is splintery and confusing and sad to be always having “this dream / where I am not trapped / in any language”; to be always realising “Maybe there is a word for this. I knew it once”. But it’s also immensely enriching and joyous — particularly if you’re a poet — to be able to think of a wave ( 波 ) as water ( 氵) + skin ( 皮 ). Her rendering of what it’s like to learn another language as an adult — “I am full of nouns and verbs; I don’t know how to live any other way” — particularly moved me. Learning a second language as an adult — especially one of your ancestral languages; one you might have heard in passing all your life — forces you to look anew at your mother tongue and question how you express yourself. It’s a gift to be asked to pay attention to language: this collection gives that gift to every reader.

Just as Powles considers both the possibilities and the challenges of multilingualism, she acknowledges both the struggles and the joys of mixed-race experience. On the one hand, she does not shy away from confronting racism. Cuttingly, she observes how American film directors “confuse modern Asian cities for their post-apocalyptic sex fantasies”; another poem has a guy telling our speaker at a party that “mixed girls are the most beautiful / because // they aren’t really white / but they aren’t really Asian either” (can you believe that?!). On the other hand, Powles finds plenty of joy in being Chinese: she delights in the ginkgo leaves yellowing over Shanghai; in “silk cheongsams and cotton slippers with flowers embroidered on the toes”; in the open arms of the language. Her poems particularly revel in the details of Chinese food: in the tea-scented steam rising from fresh zònɡzi; in pink pomelo flesh parting musically from its rind; in the thin square of paper on the bottom of a steam-hot bāozi; in spring onion pancakes made of “flour, sunlight, onions, salt and rainwater”. This collection doesn’t shy away from what is difficult about being mixed-race. But it doesn’t forget to look for the good either.

In its honesty about the complexities of mixed-race experience, this collection is a New Zealand milestone. Aotearoa is deeply multicultural: over a hundred languages are spoken on our shores and navigating multiple cultures is an everyday experience for hundreds of thousands of people who don’t belong to the Caucasian majority — those who are tangata whenua, immigrants, and refugees, as well as those who are mixed-race. But until recently, our literature has rarely reflected this variety. Asian New Zealanders, who currently make up 15.3% of the country’s population, are among those historically underrepresented. Powles is part of a much-remarked new wave of Asian-New Zealand talent — think Rose Lu, Gregory Kan, Joanna Cho, Chris Tse, among many others. She brings her own flair — a fascination with the intersection of languages, an exploration of being mixed-race rather than straightforwardly a Chinese New Zealander — to a conversation that will only become more relevant; one that every New Zealander should listen to.

Magnolia, 木蘭  doesn’t always succeed. I’m not sure the poems written to accompany Agnes Martin’s paintings in the Tate Gallery (“Faraway Love” and “Happy Holiday”) quite have their place in a collection so much about race and family, as luminous as they are. Occasionally I also found some of the lines a little cliched (“I have small victories too / being kind to my body for one day / not checking my phone for your texts”). But I’m clutching at straws: I loved this book.

I would like to tell Powles how much her poem “Last summer we were underwater” meant to me, cooped up in my London flat far from home. I would like to tell her how her poems have encouraged me to finally learn Cantonese, the language of my maternal grandparents. I wish I could go to the Shanghai she describes, with its turning autumn leaves and its downpours and its magenta glow and its dumplings. Undoubtedly she romanticises the city, as everyone romanticises the places they love — but so what, when it’s this beautiful? There are colours and stars and tofu flowers. There are so many flowers, tofu and otherwise: “screaming pink azaleas”, subway maps folded into flowers, blazing marigolds, “claw-hearted peonies”. There are “loam-eyed wolf-flowers” and dusk-smudged hydrangeas and seas of kōwhai. Of course, there are many, many magnolias: on the street corners of Wellington, “[d]oused in pink, tongues out”; scattered in “thick white pieces of skin on the pavement all over Shanghai”. The collection ends with a line linking language and abundance and the body and blossom, a microcosm of the whole collection: “My mouth a river in full bloom”. This is the voice of someone bright and rare. You don’t want to miss this.

Maddie is a writer and freelance editor based in Tāmaki Makaurau. You can read more of her work at https://fieldnotesoninbetweening.substack.com.