Sensory Experiences in Nina Mingya Powles’s Magnolia木蘭


the book cover for Magnolia木蘭, featuring a painting of flowers in a vase with a calendar page, photograph, and bracelet next to it

Nina Mingya Powles
Tin House | August 16, 2022

Nina Mingya Powles’s newest collection, Magnolia木蘭, is a sensory feast. Inviting readers into the spaces between language and culture, between country of birth and countries of origin, Powles paints the landscapes and histories that have shaped her. In doing so, readers not only have the chance to see, but to taste, smell, hear, and touch language.

Indeed, Powles use of language is stunning, recreating both what it is to discover oneself in language learning (having grown up in New Zealand, the speaker goes to China to learn the language of half her family) and to really allow that language to sink in to one’s whole being: “in Chinese one word can lead you out of the dark / then back into it / in a single breath.”

Language, then, becomes a kind of home in which the speaker is not yet completely comfortable, but one she longs to inhabit with greater confidence. In this space of unknowing, Powles creates new language with images that incorporate multiple sensory inputs. She brilliantly layers objects upon each other; for example, in “Love letter in lotus leaves,” a “blue bowl of zòngzi” is translated onto a city:

Shanghai in May,
a city’s damp unfurling—

lingering thickness
of air and clouds

white unwrapped cakes
of steamed rice

bear the imprint
of ridged leaves
azaleas bear the memory of rain

Likewise, in the poem “Falling city,” the speaker says, “In each city, large or small, each person has their own secret map.” As the speaker navigates new cities utilizing the lines on maps, she’s also learning the lines in the Chinese characters, and often takes time to share with readers the meaning of Chinese words, as she does in “Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, 2016”:

…We look up the Chinese name
for persimmon on my phone, 柿子, we taste the word,
we cut it open, wondering at how it sounds
so like the word for lion, 狮子, lion fruit
like a tiny roaring sun, shiny lion fruit.

This exploration of language is both enlightening and akin to trying to follow a map in an unknown city. In part II of the collection, a long poem entitled “Field notes on a downpour,” the speaker says, “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.” While there is immense beauty in discovering that “certain languages contain more kinds of rain than others, and I have eaten them all,” the bifurcation of identity wrought by being multiracial is something the speaker experiences both physically and linguistically: “The lady at the fruit shop asks me how I can be half Chinese and still look like this. (She points to my hair). 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.”

The speaker shows the multiplicity that the knowing of (or desire of knowing) another language brings to one’s experience not only with words but with form. In “Mother tongue / 母语,” which is subtitled, “A poem in two voices,” two separate columns run down the page telling of a childhood lived in New Zealand in which “I peel jackfruit with my fingers / while they talk over and around me / in a language so familiar but so far away” and an imagined childhood in China “where I am not trapped / in any language.”

For the speaker, home is less of a location, more of a sensory experience: “Home is not a place but a string of colours threaded together and knotted at one end.” Home, then, takes shape in the ability to describe, to make every detail a sensory experience. In “Breakfast in Shanghai,” readers can almost see, taste, smell, touch “the morning after a downpour” when it’s described as a meal: “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” I can imagine almost exactly what the speaker experiences when she describes in “Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles” when she says, “I remember the sound the sword made / when she cut off all her hair // a sound like my mother cutting fabric / those blue scissors / clutched in her small hands.”

Powles closes Magnolia木蘭 with the line: “My mouth a river in full bloom.” This so accurately describes the experience of reading this collection. A gracious guide through the experience of trying to inhabit other geographic locations and languages, her invitation is for readers to taste with all their senses the details of the world around them—the more languages one knows, the more multi-flavored reality becomes, and yet, as Powles notes, there is always “a hunger that won’t go away.” Perhaps the best way to go through life, then, is like the magnolia: “Leafless, blushing, open-mouthed by the sea. Doused in pink, tongues out.” This is the kind of wonder that fills this collection, calling readers to savor each poem.

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