2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #3 Nina Mingya Powles’ ‘Magnolia 木蘭’

As in the previous five years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 25th October 2020. Click here to see my reviews of all the 2019 shortlisted books (eventual winner Stephen Sexton); here for my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2020 shortlist is:

Ella Frears – Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books) – reviewed here.

Will Harris – RENDANG (Granta Books) – reviewed here.

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press)

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

 

EaFGv9OWkAE6KuFNina Mingya Powles’ collection, Magnolia 木蘭, is an uneven book of great energy, of striking originality, but also of a great deal of borrowing. This is what good debut collections used to be like! I’m reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s disarming observation in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) that he “had absolutely nothing to say till [he] was about thirty-four”. The originality of Magnolia 木蘭 is largely derived from Powles’ background and brief biographical journey. She is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, born and raised in New Zealand, spending a couple of years as a student in Shanghai and now living in the UK. Her subjects are language/s, exile and displacement, cultural loss/assimilation and identity. Shanghai is the setting for most of the poems here and behind them all loiter the shadows and models of Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe and, especially, Anne Carson. Powles refers to the impact of reading Carson’s Sappho versions but a much earlier book like Plainwater (1995) with its extraordinary inventiveness of form, gives an idea of what Magnolia 木蘭 contains. (See also Carson’s lecture, ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’ (2008), revised for Poetry Review (2013)).

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Powles has said that the opening poem is the oldest. Called ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, it is written sections of prose (though divided by / every so often as if to suggest line breaks). The Disney animation – about a young Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to fight and prove herself – turns out to be an important reference point for the whole collection. The Mulan figure is recognised as idealised (disneyfied) compared to the narrator who laments her “thick legs / and too much hair that doesn’t stay”. Mulan cuts her hair short; the narrator’s mother trims hers. The issue of the subtitles raises the language question (“I understand only some of the words” of the spoken Chinese). There are suggestions of early encounters with boys, her mother dressing her up as Mulan and (later, presumably) what sounds like a writing workshop comment: “Why don’t you ever write about yourself”. All this works well as a cryptic, cut up sort of a bildungsroman, though the ending fades away less effectively and the earlier hair-cutting episode ends with a disproportionately hyperbolic image of the trimmed hair falling out of place, “ungracefully caught / in the wind of some perpetual / hurricane”.

Nina-Headshot-credit-Sophie-Davidson-1-scaled-e1591794392875I don’t think the intriguing glimpses of an individual young woman in this first poem are much developed in later ones. The Mulan figure makes a couple of other appearances in the book and is reprised in the concluding poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’. This consists of even shorter prose observations. In Chinese, ‘mulan’ means magnolia so the fragments here cover the plant family Magnoliaceae, the film again, the Chinese characters for mulan, Shanghai moments, school days back in New Zealand and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. It’s hard not to think you are reading much the same poem, using similar techniques, though this one ends more strongly: “My mouth a river in full bloom”.

71W8RjV7VrLUnlike Carson’s use of fragmentary texts, Powles is less convincing and often gives the impression of casting around for links. This is intended to reflect a sense of rootlessness (cultural, racial, personal) but there is a willed quality to the composition. One of the things Powles does have to say (thinking again of Maxwell’s observation) is the doubting of what is dream and what is real. The prose piece, ‘Miyazaki bloom’, opens with this idea and the narrator’s sense of belonging “nowhere” is repeated. This is undoubtedly heartfelt – though students living in strange cities have often felt the same way. Powles also casts around for role models (beyond Mulan) and writes about the New Zealand poet, Robin Hyde and the great Chinese author Eileen Chang, both of whom resided in Shanghai for a time. ‘Falling City’ is a rather exhausting 32 section prose exploration of Chang’s residence, mixing academic observations, personal reminiscence and moments of fantasy to end (bathetically) with inspiration for Powles: “I sit down at one of the café tables and begin to write. It is the first day of spring”.

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Eileen Chang

But there’s no doubting the range of reference in Magnolia 木蘭 is refreshing and bringing something new to UK poetry. Poems allude to writers like Hyde and Chang, filmmakers like Miyazaki, the actor Maggie Cheung, Princess Mononoke (a Japanese spirit figure) as well as images from her New Zealand home. Powles’ enthusiasm is also infectious when it comes to formal experimentation. There is little conventional ‘verse’ to be found here. Prose in various guises is frequent, lists and fragments predominate. There are instructional texts, quiz and QandA forms, text and footnote, quoting and re-purposing of other texts, two-column poems (read two ways) and (very frequently) a jotting or journalistic form. This latter gives rise to the best sequence in the collection, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Its 8 short sections return to the question of what is real, expressing a fear of things/words slipping away: “There are so many things I am trying to hold together”. Powles’ time studying Mandarin is contributory here as each section explores the homophonic/polysemic nature of Chinese characters. The first character of her mother’s name, for example, also suggests rain, language, warm, lips and lines/veins. Such moments are fascinating and often poetically suggestive. Another character, ‘zong’, encompasses assemble, trace and the uneven flight of a bird; all aspects of Powles’ technique as a writer. The sequence ends with a sense of language having been lost, though the image of a dropped jar of honey perhaps suggests something holds, something remains: “The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly”.

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‘Nomenclature of Colours’

Indeed, another of the pleasures of Powles’ poems is her vivid writing about food. She has said the book is a love poem to Shanghai and it certainly does justice to its culinary offerings. There are four options for ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’, egg noodles crisping in a wok, dumplings, white cabbage and pork and a whole dishful of pink-hearted pomelo fruit. She also has a heightened sense of colour (reflected in Nine Arches’ cover perhaps) and there are ekphrastic responses to Agnes Martin, Lisa Reihana and Werner’s ‘Nomenclature of Colours’ (1814).

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Rothko’s ‘Saffron’

Mark Rothko’s ‘Saffron’ (1957) makes an appearance in ‘Colour fragments’ and, after a vivid evocation of the original image, Powles’ response is too unremarkable in that she  imagines climbing into the painting, “and you are floating or drowning or both at the same time”. This is not original (or originally expressed) and has something of an undergraduate feel to it. That’s harsh – but what Powles has to say at the moment does not live up to the impressive technical and referential aspects of her writing. I don’t think listing ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’ (none of them very striking, all dealt with in other poems) or ‘Faraway Love’, a re-purposing of Tate gallery notes on a piece by Agnes Martin, should have made the cut to this first book. The book Nine Arches Press presents here is quite a feast – unselfconsciously delighting in colour, taste and a strong sense of place – but it’s also too self-conscious about its nature as poetry and hence I’m left with the less pleasing taste of a poet in hiding or at least one often arrayed in other writers’ clothes.

Jazz and Upbringing: Marvin Thompson’s ‘Road Trip’ reviewed

Marvin Thompson’s debut collection from Peepal Tree Press is a PBS Recommendation and deservedly so. All too often we are informed of the arrival of a startling voice, usually a vital one, striking a new note in English poetry. Well, this is the real deal: a superbly skilled practitioner of the art whose work is driven by two seemingly opposing forces. Thompson writes with a disarming sense of autobiographical honesty, often about domestic life, as a father and a son. Yet he can also create fictional characters with detailed and convincing voices and backgrounds. What holds these divergent styles together is his demonstrated conviction that the past (as an individual or as a member of an ethnic or cultural group) interpenetrates the present.

‘Cwmcarn’ is a poem in an apparently simple autobiographical mode, the narrator out camping in Wales with his two children. He has been reading them to sleep with pages from Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s  biography but feeling a bit guilty about not finding a book about “a Mixed Race // scientist / for my // Mixed Race / children”. The thought leads him to reflect on his own childhood’s confusions about racial identity, being born in north London to Jamaican parents, but knowing he was ultimately “by ancestry, / African”. He recalls the hurt of being “branded” English, not Jamaican, and then worries about the consequences of his children identifying “as White / in a Britain // that will call them / Black”. As you can see, Thompson’s chosen form is reminiscent of what Heaney (around the time of North) called his ‘artesian’ form of skinny-thin poems and the same effect of drilling down into the past is achieved here.

joe-harriott-movementSeveral of the same components are redeployed in the sequence ‘The One in Which…’ (with a nod to Friends). The narrator is driving his kids to the cinema, playing “Joe Harriott’s abstract jazzin the car. The children not surprisingly consider the music angry, sad and crazy. The father is not unhappy with this: “my Mixed Race children are listening / to something I want them to love”. He himself wonders if it’s “upbringing // or brainwashing” but the music “sings // Africa’s diaspora and raises skin to radiance”. (Listen to Thompson read this poem here) This last phrase is a wonderful play on aspects of light and darkness and the consciousness of the power of the past is extended with the father’s memories of the 1985 disturbances on Broadwater Farm in Tottenham. What Thompson does so convincingly and without strain is to present the individual’s stream of consciousness as it streaks in and out of the past and present. The third section of this sequence opens with a simile that should come to be seen to rival the ground-breaking significance of Eliot’s Prufrockian evening spread out against the sky “Like a patient etherised upon a table”. Welsh storm clouds are the subject here and the comparisons that flood the poem are drawn from the past of Jamaican, American, Haitian and African roots:

 

Mountain clouds clench like a Maroon’s fists 

as she sleeps beyond the sugarcane and soldier’s guns with her sons

and daughters in Jamaica’s hills – fists like Jack Johnson’s,

 

an 18th Century Haitian’s or an ANC activist’s.

 

It will be objected that there are one (or two) too many similitudes here but surely that is the point: the vividness, dynamism and vitality of these images drawn from the past make up an irresistible force to the father in the poem.

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Blaen Bran Community Woodland

The astonishingly titled ‘Whilst Searching for Anansi with my Mixed Race Children in the Blaen Bran Community Woodland’ makes Thompson’s point over again: the (playful) search for an African folkloric trickster figure (in the shape of a spider) in the Welsh woodlands is not being flaunted here, it is taken to be perfectly normal. In fact, the family don’t discover Anansi at all but an apparently dead fox. But the father’s head is full of his previous night’s dream of Mark Duggan’s shooting by police in 2011 which is also mixed with memories of 1985 again, when “rage had spread / like an Arab Spring”. The delicacy of the descriptions of the fox, combined with the children’s concern for it (it is still alive), become correlatives for the father’s preoccupations with the past. These latter thoughts again streak backwards – in appropriately dream-like fashion – to finding Duggan lying now in the Gold Coast, in ancestral times, “chains ready on docked ships from London”. There is no wrench when the father suddenly resurfaces in the present, worrying, “Will Britain / learn to love my children’s melanin?” The compassion shown towards the injured fox by the family, taking it to a vet, reflects some hopefulness perhaps.

Road Trip does indeed indicate the possibilities of compassionate responses to racial and social divides, the importance of an empathetic imagination which yet does not iron out the kinds of historical differences that Thompson is clearly exploring. ‘Rochelle’ is a 6-poem sequence demonstrating this point as well as showcasing the more fiction-making aspects of Thompson’s talent. The narrative is from Rochelle’s point of view, a young black girl driving to London from Wales to support her sister who has had a miscarriage. On the way, she picks up a young black hitchhiker, Kite, and his back story is also developed in the poems. The form here – and used elsewhere in the book – is a form of loose terza rima, half rhymed mostly, with not much variation in the rhyme sounds. The effect is a kind of circling, interweaving with some sense of a slow progression – which is marvellously apt for the exploration of the past’s breaking into the present and this sequence’s sense of a tentative break-out of the established cycle. Rochelle’s mercy dash is actually undertaken pretty equivocally because she and her sister have much rivalry and bad blood from the past. This sense of distance and alienation is also reflected in the hiker who seems a silent, morose figure. But somewhere near the Hangar Lane gyratory, Rochelle pulls over because there is a horse in the road. The animal – like the fox earlier – provokes a tender response from Kite which opens up the relationship between the two people. Kite’s background has been as difficult as Rochelle’s and now he is returning home to care for his mother who has dementia. A friendship is struck up and the conversation with Kite’s mother persuades Rochelle to phone her sister with a good deal more sisterly compassion in her heart.

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Broadwater Farm, north London

Thompson is good at sketching in such characters and developing relationships, investing moments and scenes with a mysterious intensity, but the tone is not usually so optimistic. ‘The Weight of the Night’ is a pair of prose pieces in which the past – of sexual guilt, male presumption and final reckoning – proves to be an immoveable obstacle to a marriage. And though there is something comic in the germ of the idea in ‘The Many Reincarnations of Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson’ (a father’s ghost returns to his son, telling of his many previous lives), the reincarnations are all in the form of British military figures from Peterloo, the Boer War, Aden, the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Falklands campaign. The theme is imperialism and social injustice and the father’s chuckling about his actions creates an uncrossable divide between him and his son. I don’t know that I fully understand Thompson’s intentions in this sequence which again uses the ‘artesian’ form, and the surreal quality of some of the fictionalising here makes things harder to interpret. But the past – and perhaps the older generations’ complicity in the many injustices adumbrated – falls as a dead weight onto the present, even in the son’s recalling his father’s recent death from cancer.

Marvin Thompson High resolutionI’m impressed at the editorial control shown in this collection. I suspect there are many false starts or even other successes lying in Thompson’s files. There is a generosity of creative energy here which one suspects could display itself at much greater length (a novel perhaps?). The concluding sequence of 3 monologues, ‘The Baboon Chronicles’, is a case in point. Thompson creates a dystopian world (not far from our own – or at least Pontnewynydd) in which Black and White live uneasily beside each other but the streets are also occupied by baboons. These creatures are treated with disgust and abuse by the humans. The White characters also seem to abuse the Black people on a reflex with insults like “’boon”. In monologues by Stephen, Sally and Suzi, Thompson does make points about racism, the othering of those perceived as different, injustice and (latterly) police violence but what is more impressive is the empathetic imagination on show in the creation of these characters’ voices. Thompson possesses in abundance Keats’ negative capability and, as much as he shows how the past, racial and cultural upbringing and memories of injustice lays so heavily on individual identity, Road Trip also shows the possibility of imagining into the Other (of listening as all the great jazzers do) which, rather than a retreat behind the Pale, must be the way towards a more just and equitable world.