A museum of memories, Natalya Newman
15 March, 2021
Nina Mingya Powles is a writer and zinemaker, and Magnolia 木蘭 is her newest collection of soul-baring poetry. This book is an honest exploration of home and the way its meaning changes and grows alongside us. Powles gently pulls away the defences and boundaries in our minds as though she were peeling one of the many pieces of fruit that remind her of home. She guides us through her own thoughts, not like leading us down a path behind her with a destination in mind, but telling us to follow a moving light over a flowing, shifting expanse of water that has no end.
“A museum of memories stripped down.”
Powles uses every sense to let us experience the beauty of her meaning of home. Food, language, colour, nature, cities, memories, senses, quotations and thoughts. All of these play an intricate role in the way Powles weaves the poetry in this book. The variety within these pieces of writing takes readers on a journey that constantly remains impossible to predict. Much as the way we cannot predict the way our everyday lives will play out, these differences within the poems show a true and honest portrayal of life. Each poem and idea can stand alone, but they are all empowered by each other. They all represent the different colours within her.
“Home is not a place but a string of colours threaded together and knotted at one end.”
Admittedly, I did not know what a ‘zinemaker’ was, so I searched it up and found tutorials online on how to make zines. Within minutes I was enthralled by the idea I could create something worthwhile and beautiful. This hobby really highlights the joy Powles finds in creating and sharing. Such a personal, creative and free style of expression that rejects boundaries fits incredibly well with this collection of poetry. In Magnolia 木蘭, Powles uses every sense to communicate her feelings and share her experiences. She tells of the joys and struggles of having such a dynamic sense of home, but her poems view this through many different lenses.
“Everything is in a haze, a sunken dreamworld seen through pink stained glass.”
Language plays a crucial role in the development of these poems. We can see in Magnolia 木蘭 that Powles has knowledge of English, Mandarin, Hakka and Māori. Yet the meaning and intent behind how these languages are used is changed from poem to poem. I enjoy the way her words and letters fit together like puzzle pieces, and each piece can be pulled from the others and given new meaning. The way each character within a language can be seen in many different ways depending on the way it is used, opened my eyes to the full extent of the variety in what Powles has written. To have so many meanings, words and sounds in your mind would be overwhelming at times. So I think that this book shows her honest soul in a vulnerable form.
“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.”
The cover design of Magnolia 木蘭 is by Kerry Ann Lee, whose art Powles has said is very important to her. The pink and white theme matches the beauty of the magnolia flower, which is both the title and the national flower of Shanghai, the place where most of these poems were written. I love the artwork for both its style and content. It displays personal treasures such as flowers of various colours, a beautiful vase, the date displayed on a calendar, a photograph and a jade or greenstone necklace. All of these hint at different memories and experiences, which embodies the poetry within the book. The font is elegant and simple, nothing overly fancy. Choosing a font like this draws attention to the beauty found in simplicity, and the artwork shows the beauty found in everyday moments and experiences. Both of these thoughtful additions set up an honest and truthful stage for Powles’ poetry.
“Bright skins and leaves sucked clean, my hands smelling tea-sweet. Something inside me uncurling. A hunger that won’t go away.
I cannot say for certain what book Magnolia 木蘭 reminds me of. The emotions and energy generated through reading this book are difficult to put a label to. I would say that if you enjoy feeling and experiencing alongside a poet simply by reading their work, Powles writing style elegantly achieves this. The overall feeling of this book reminds me of the poem Coming, by Philip Larkin. These both convey a sense of nostalgia and the unknown. I would recommend Magnolia 木蘭 to anyone who wishes to take a breath of fresh air and learn to see and feel the world and their home again. This book really makes you stop and appreciate the world around you. Appreciate our differences and similarities. Appreciate the beauty within language, culture and everyday things. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to view the world through a different lens.
“I sought out exact places where I had stood ten years earlier, let bright waves wash over me. I watched them coming from a distance.”
Magnolia 木蘭 is a book of poetry whose message is limitless and rejects constraints. Powles shows us her life through her own eyes and experiences, creating memories on every part of the vast spectrum of emotion. If you enjoy reading a book that transports you into every poem, word and page, I would recommend reading Magnolia 木蘭.
“Back home in spring, they are everywhere, flaming in the corners of my vision. Leafless, blushing, open-mouthed by the sea. Doused in pink, tongues out.”
– Natalya is a Year 12 student at Huanui College in Whangarei.