Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles

“I am full of nouns and verbs; I don’t know how to live any other way.”

Equal parts winsome and wistful Magnolia, 木蘭 makes for a dreamy yet insightful collection of poems that read like a meditation on the interplay between language, memory, and heritage. In some of these poems, Nina Mingya Powles examines how language has affected the way she interacts with her family members, her grasp of Mandarin, and writers like Eileen Chang and actors like Maggie Cheung. Some of these poems are light, ephemeral even, others appear more like snapshots, ones that capture in vibrant detail a certain mood.

“When reading her stories in translation it’s like trying to see her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.”

Sometimes a certain memory or image leads Powles, and us, into unexpected places, so that we come to surprising realizations or observations. Many of these poems are suffused by a sense of longing, a nostalgia even. Powles yearns for connection, for clarity, for a more clear understanding of her own history. While the experiences and images within these poems are clearly very specific to Powles, there were many instances where I felt very in sync with the way Powles articulated her feelings and/or impressions. I liked the rhythm of her words, the imagery she creates, and the reflections she makes. The melancholic atmosphere permeating these poems adds to their introspective mood, and I even found myself revisiting my favorites once I’d finished the collection.

“Everything is in a haze, a sunken dreamworld seen through pink stained glass. Everything around me might collapse at the slightest touch. Light, sound, the air that separates you and me.”

Powles’ interrogation of language, its limitations, and its potential, brought to mind the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, Kim Thúy, and Victoria Chang. The comparative dimension Powles brings into her poems, as she refers to real-life people and art, brought to mind Olivia Laing. If you are looking for a melodic collection exploring language, memory, and identity you should definitely add this release to your tbr list.

“In Chinese one word can lead you out of the dark / then back into it / in a single breath”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

goodreads thestorygraph letterboxd tumblr ko-fi


Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: