Summer read: Books editor Catherine Woulfe reads Small Bodies of Water.
First published September 16, 2021.
September, Tāmaki Makaurau, spring. The season of kōwhai and magnolias and mānuka. Absolutely not the right time for feijoas, they fruit at Easter. And yet this morning my toddler ran across the lawn to me chanting BEEJOA BEEJOA. She thrust her hand up. Huh. Beejoa. She ate the whole thing, even the hard little frill where the stem joins the fruit. She bounced on the spot. I set down my climate-crisis dread and bounced with her, light for a moment.
Small Bodies of Water buoys the reader up. It brings those moments of lightness closer to the surface, makes them more accessible – or perhaps it simply helps you notice them, which is the same thing. In her poetry as well as in these essays Nina Mingya Powles dwells on fruit and colour and growth and language, and here she does so with such unrelenting focus, such grace, that even a few paragraphs snatched around small children felt like dropping into a flow state. I drew it out for four days, reading mostly in the garden while the kids cackled on the tramp. The shadows of eucalyptus and poplar flickered over the pages. It felt like being underwater. It was one of the best reading experiences of my life. It filled up my cup, or rather allowed me to fill it myself. Now I feel more inclined to savour, and to tend, even in week five of level four, even though I also frequently feel like crying.
The book is set in all the places Powles is connected to – Wellington, Shanghai, Malaysia, London. She wanders the streets, wanders her memories, learns Mandarin and calligraphy, how to swim in very cold water, how to be far away, how to stay safe in an earthquake, how to make the tofu dish dòuhuā. How to be a woman who is white and Malaysian Chinese, and born in Aotearoa, for whom “home [is] a slippery word”. This is a book about self and belonging, but it’s also about beginnings. Begin by, begin with, begin in; these are recurring phrases, gentle, healthy self-talk.
The book is pitched as being about the bodies of water in her cities and between her cities, and that’s a nice zoomed-out way to think of it, but it’s hardly serene, dreamy, watery. These essays are heavily populated, dense with history and books and grandparents and cabbage butterflies and bags of mandarins and big fragrant bowls of phở.
This is the opening of the third essay, which might be my favourite.
Wind shakes the flower clusters of the kōwhai in my parents’ garden by the sea. Fallen petals scatter in the grass next to the lemon tree, where lemons tremble and drop, creating a carpet in varying shades of yellow and gold. The smell and the colour of this corner of the garden is overwhelming.
It’s a paragraph in isolation, but it’s also a self-contained spell, enriching, verging on poetry. Almost every paragraph in the book functions like this. The paragraphs have lots of white space between them. It makes the structure of the book feel like a work of art, a poem, in and of itself. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Powles had deliberately modelled it on one of her obsessions: citrus fruit. Another standout essay, Unpeel, is built around the peeling (Powles calls it, with quiet logic, “unpeeling”) and breaking-down of citrus; she writes about the fruit with trademark precision, noting that each fruit breaks down into segments, and each segment in turn is composed of tiny bursting chambers, called vesicles. Well, consider each paragraph a vesicle. Carefully bring together a few dozen to form an essay, a segment. Then arrange 16 segments into a whole. Like Powles, I let the juice run down my wrists.
Where is the line between poetry and prose? Maybe it’s a thing we made up, maybe it shifts all the time. Fragments of poems from Powles’ Ockham-shortlisted 2020 collection Magnolia 木蘭 naturally resurface in Small Bodies of Water. She has brought across one long poem in its entirety – Falling City, about the Shanghai-born writer Eileen Chang – and it doesn’t stick out at all. I fleetingly noticed that unlike the other essays, the paragraphs on this one are numbered. Then I swooned back into the colours, and the heat, and that sense of mastery so consistent it’s mesmerising, a metronome of nouns and tidal pull.
Things that are different: the crossing has lights, the American diner has been pulled down, yellow and orange marigolds blaze in the middle of the road. Things that are the same: the hotel where we used to go for dim sum, the plane trees wrapped in purple stars that light up at dusk.
The cover art and design is by Gill Heeley, who did the Elizabeth Strout covers, Sophie Mackintosh’s powdered, misty novel The Water Cure, and Susan Cain’s silent-white Quiet, among many others. For Powles she went painterly, primary; the cover glows with kōwhai flowers and the blues of deep water.
So does the writing. Powles sees in wild, saturated colour, and even where it’s not made explicit colour infuses every sentence. She writes about finding flowers pressed in books. In hers, she drips great bright blobs of paint, then crushes the pages closed. “I brought my notebook with me when I went out to eat alone, and wrote down the colours of the sky instead: blood orange, dark violet, strawberry ice cream pink, hot magenta.” Of course she applies colour to the sky, to the sea, to the kōwhai tree in her parents’ garden, but it goes further than that, psyche-deep. In an essay about awful period pain, even that pain has a colour. “Some people will ask you for a number, but I find it easiest to represent pain with a colour and corresponding verb. Emerald green gnawing. Crimson pulling. Dark pink pushing.”
Colour, colour, everywhere – it compounds the sense of great abundance and potential that comes from Powles’ attention to growing things. I mean growing as in gardening and growing as in living. There are so many plants in this book, so much fruit and flowers, that when I see the word “gloves” I read it for a moment as “foxgloves”. She writes like a lifelong gardener, she writes about gardening (she lives in London, she grows spring bulbs, mint, garlic, spring onions, a little kōwhai in a pot), and it’s surprising when she writes that this, like Mandarin, is a language she’s still learning. Here she is staying with a friend in southern England:
Over breakfast, I had asked his mother about the flowers in her garden: hydrangea, peony, azalea, nasturtium. There are flowers I recognise but don’t know the names of; she points to each one and tells me their names, giving me the vocabulary to write about plants with precision for the first time. Azalea, clematis, dahlia, allium. I recognise that in doing so she is giving me a gift.
Hydrangea, kōwhai, jasmine, these are invoked often and easily, but a stinging vine of hurt and bewilderment twists through this book, too. The quote above is drawn from an essay cradled in the middle of the text: Tender Gardens, the only piece that centres Powles’ experiences of racism. The woman who teaches Powles the names of plants also comments, “The Chinese were in fact very friendly, very nice to each other. Not what you’d expect.” Powles, stunned, filled with questions, says nothing. She starts a Google Doc chronicling the incidents and their aftermath. She calls it INVISIBLE DOCUMENT, “as if a spell of invisibility might lessen the weight of it”.
In this essay and elsewhere in the book she recounts other examples, other people with ugly comments, every one a terrible, quick-blooming shock. She speaks up. “This is not OK,” to a white relative posting a racist meme on a family WhatsApp group. “That was racist,” she says on another occasion, calmly, bravely. But both times: nothing. “If anyone else in the room has heard me, they don’t make a sign. The room cannot hold onto my words for too long or else it might go up in flames. The room cannot hold on to me.”
At about the same time that she starts the Invisible Document, Powles starts a garden diary, “full of nourishment, roots, sun and rain”. It’s a tendency she has, or a strategy: turn to the sun. And so other dreads are named and released, briefly, purposefully, amid all the beauty. (This is a defiant flip of the ratio – so many books right now are about the end of the world, with just the odd touch of leavener.) Here, in a gorgeous, drenching essay called The Plum Rains, climate change is dealt with in a single devastating paragraph. Elsewhere, writing about a heatwave in London, she explains her approach by citing Franny Choi’s poem How to Let Go of the World: “in lieu of all I can’t do or undo; I hold. / The faces of the trees in my hands.”
Covid-19 and lockdown in London inform at least two of the essays but they stay mostly in the background, lending impetus and edge. In these pieces we read not about the virus but about Powles’ ichthyologist grandfather, and a cloud forest in Malaysia; about learning to make a tofu dish from scratch. “In the back of my mind I feel a grinding pressure to write, to create, to make good use of this time. But my body feels worn down, my nerves softened and tenderised,” she writes, turning her focus to the soaking of soybeans.
At one point there is mention of a problem with eating, although the details are neither given nor necessary. There is a broader anxiety too, which swims to the surface in the essay The Safe Zone, ostensibly about earthquakes and tsunami. She mentions both a “mild post-traumatic stress disorder” (caused by two men who broke into her Wellington flat with what turned out to be a fake gun) and what Canadian novelist Kyo Maclear calls “anticipatory grief”. “I’m always less afraid of what’s happening now than of what might happen next.” She finds comfort in patterns, as we all do, and in small touchstones of synchronicity. Pieces of jade. A kōwhai tree blooming in suburban London. A kōwhai flower falling from the pages of a book. Orca, swimming out of her dreams and along the Kāpiti Coast, so close she can see them from her parents’ house.
Often, she draws connections with language, pulling apart the characters and intricacies of Mandarin, mining it for meaning. To paraphrase an example: the Mandarin for to worry or to be anxious is dānxīn 担心. The first character, dān, means to shoulder or to carry, and originally, to carry on a shoulder pole. Powles pictures buckets, water sloshing. The second character, xīn, is a heart. “It helps me to think of my anxiety in such visual terms. I picture a heart carrying too much inside, fit to burst, overflowing at the slightest touch.”
Powles also likes to make short lists – every so often she pauses to take stock, to sift through her treasure box of memories and motifs. There’s a sense of comfort in the ritual, but there is also power in what she chooses to hold on to. In turning to the sun.
So, things I am taking with me from this anxious week of lockdown, because I choose them: Bluebells. White toast with butter. Rolling Maltesers across the carpet to my six-year-old. The pīwakawaka that keeps us company on the tramp. Painting my toenails Big Apple Red. Taking a tangelo from the fridge, and placing it in the sun to warm. A book.
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