There are so many things I am trying to hold together. I write them
down each day to stop them from slipping. Mouthfuls of rain, the blue
undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark.
-From “Field notes on a downpour”
Magnolia, the 2021 RSL Ondaatje Prize, is a complex and compelling debut that demonstrates Nina Mingya Powles mastery of contemporary poetics. Powles utilizes numerous forms throughout the collection, highlighting her ability to write equally well inside and outside of convention. Building off her chapbook, field notes on a downpour, Powles grounds the collection in language and its connection to identity. She expands on the exploration of Chinese at the heart of field notes on a downpour with two additional sections, one that critiques representations of Chinese women in popular culture and one that expands on Powles mixed ethnic background as a Chinese New Zeleander.
One of the first things that readers will notice about Magnolia is that Powles’ writing is deliberate and graceful, demonstrating a deep understanding of linguistics. While this may be her first full-length collection, the poems are clearly the work of someone who has dedicated significant time to craft, and who approaches language like an anthropologist or philosopher might. It comes as no surprise, then, that Powles has already established herself as a keen essayist with a penchant for infusing her work with questions of identity, language and culture. This background may also account for several long poems in Magnolia that are broken into fragments.
Powles opens the collection with “Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles,” a poem that uses popular culture to describe the difficulties of self-actualization. Separated into seven sections, the poem tracks the speaker’s connection to Mulan and their parallel paths. In the first section, the speaker notes that even Mulan, “…a Disney princess…with straight hair/thin waist/hardly any breasts,” does not resemble the speaker’s “…thick legs/and too much hair that doesn’t stay.” The speaker watches the film in Chinese with English subtitles, but admits that she understands only a few words, further emphasizing the disconnect between her and Mulan. As the poem closes, though, the speaker exhibits strength and self-acceptance, finding closure with her version of the warrior princess.
Magnolia is rich with numerous poetic structures, from traditional prose poems to madlibs to litanies. This encourages readers to prioritize the arrangement of words and phrases on the page, adding depth and nuance to each poem. Even “The Great Wall (2016),” which appears to be structured as conventional couplets, makes brilliant use of the two-line stanza as a physical manifestation of the divisiveness within the poem. As the title suggests, the poem contends with a wall or dichotomous relationship between Matt Damon, the White savior, and Lin Mei, presented simultaneously as a fierce warrior and stereotypical “exotic love interest who will risk everything/as ancient cities crumble around her.” Powles’ decision to offset the second line of each couplet reinforces the innate divide of being both White and Chinese.
One of the most powerful poems in the collection, for me, is “Alternate words for mixed-race,” written after Danez Smith. The poem is presented with a litany on one page and a series of footnotes on the accompanying page, evoking elements of Ocean Vuong’s “Seventh Circle of Earth.” Throughout the poem, Powles addresses numerous words and phrases that she associates with her mixed-race identity. Some of the terms, like “Mudblood,” are familiar, while others concretize the shame sometimes associated with living on the edge of two cultures, such as the ninth entry: “‘A stroke is missing here. Can’t you write your own name?’” Written as a piece of dialogue, this brief line captures what it feels like to grasp at parts of your culture only to be rejected as an outsider.
Powles is one of the most talented writers of her generation, and she is quickly establishing herself across multiple genres. Magnolia commands patience and attention. It’s a collection that most will want to read at least twice, and one with numerous poems that linger long after you set down the book.