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Magnolia

By Nina Mingya Powles

Essayist and poet Nina Mingya Powles was born in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, and many of the poems in this collection nod to that landscape—“I come from a place full of mountains and volcanoes.” But the book is focused largely on Powles’s time in Shanghai, the city where her mother lived as a girl, and where Powles studies Chinese, forges a connection to the city, and, in several intriguingly intertextual poems, tracks the stories of Chinese writer Eileen Chong and letters from New Zealand writer Robin Hyde, who went to Shanghai as a reporter in 1938. 

Captivating and formally various, full of longing and wit, this collection explores language and place, color and cinema. The painterly “Two portraits of home,” based on Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, evokes visions of landscapes, foliage, and cityscape from both New Zealand (“the blue of the sounds.     the blue of the sounds      unripe-mango green”) and Shanghai (“mooncake-wrapper gold” and “wet cormorant black”), using only the names of colors, while on the next page the “Mixed girl’s Hakka phrasebook” expresses the frustrations of learning a heritage language while tracing through family history and memory:

Phrases I don’t know in Hakka:
 

[…] What does that mean, I can’t speak, I’m sorry, I wish I
     could speak

And later

What was it like, Do you still, do you remember who, Do you
     remember the way […]

The intimate voice and the recurrent images of rain, in the form of a “downpour,” bind the collection in a moody coherence. Dreams, colors, heat, and waves all “pour” in and through the poems, and “downpours,” by turns nostalgic, sultry, or cathartic, appear in films, memories, and even here, in a burst of rain and color describing a message from the speaker’s mother:

When the April heatwave came, my mum sent a WeChat
     video from
Malaysia of an evening downpour. You can’t see the rain, only
     the
effects of it: a gasp from her mouth and a yellow flame tree
     reflected in
the wet, shaking.

Reviewed By Heather Green
Publisher Tin House
Pages 104
Date August 16, 2022
Price $16.95