Book Review: Luminescent, by Nina Powles

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_luminescentI’ve been following Nina Powles’ work since 2014, when her first book Girls of The Drift was published by Seraph Press. She produced the zine (auto)biography of a ghost the following year.

Poems from these works have gone on to form part of the unique collection that is Luminescent. It is an unusual and striking thing – not just one book, but a series of five presented together in a single folder. The Seraph website says they’re designed to be read in any order.

The first time I opened the book, (Auto)biography and Her And The Flames were last, which made sense to me these felt like earlier work chronologically. I began with The Glowing Space Between The Stars.

One of the things I find interesting about Nina’s work is that it draws on extensive research, and while she touches on personal experience, it’s not confessional, at least not in an obvious way. Don’t get me wrong, I love confessional; I’m all over reading other people’s doomed love affairs and existential angst and identity crises.

But with Nina, there’s a steady self-assurance, and while she may be doing some exploration of her own personhood, it’s mostly done through the lens of the lives of others. This confidence and thoughtful handling of subject sets her apart from some of her cohort and is one of the things that drew me to her work four years ago.

Each book finds its inspiration in the life of a woman from New Zealand history. Cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley gives light to The Glowing Space Between the Stars. Betty Guard, reportedly the earliest Pakeha woman settler in the South Island, provides anchor in Whale Fall, and dancer Phillis Porter, who died after her dress caught on fire in Wellington’s Opera House, becomes Her and The Flames.

I don’t know if I should make a metaphor
Out of everything that astonishes me

So begins Astonishing objects, in The Glowing Space Between The Stars. That’s probably something most poets have asked themselves, but Nina describes how there were eight spiders inside the Columbia space shuttle that burnt up in 2003. How one of the crew had observed electric currents shooting up from lightning clouds, just days before the accident.

What are we supposed to do,
knowing that all this happened? …

I have collected up so many astonishing objects
that I have nowhere to put them down.

Of course, in Luminescent she has found a receptacle for these objects – and not just that, but a vehicle for telling their stories.

These stories and her telling have a unique place, descriptive as they are of New Zealand history.

In Whale Fall, she imagines herself into the life of a whaler’s wife. The titular poem is haunting, describing what happens when a dead whale drifts to the sea floor, becoming an ecosystem for other organisms.

4.
The place where whales fall is never touched by sunlight.
… the darkness is only sparsely interrupted
by bursts of bioluminescent light.
You can see them
when you shut your eyes.

Sunflowers explores the author’s relationship with Katherine Mansfield, moving through responses to her work, to portraits of her, to talks about her. An erasure poem, Lucid Dream, uses a section of Mansfield’s journal from 1919. This sort of poem shows a particular kind of skill I don’t see many people master. It is difficult to accurately reproduce in text, but assume ellipses to be the erased sections.

…. Cold….
….dream…
….And suddenly I felt
…like glass.
Long…. shiver,…

….a sense of floating….
…..still…. slowly
….I died.
. Time….
….was shaken
out of me. ….
I…
…see… sun… and… violets-

In Her And The Flames, Nina imagines herself into the life and death of ill-fated dancer Phyllis Porter. The poem The echo captures a moment, perhaps the one before she died, perhaps one that keeps her alive.

There is a moment
inside of the echo
of the last note
when she holds
herself en pointe
…. so
still as if she
is no longer
a living breathing
girl but a spirit
… caught
in the space between
the inhale
and the exhale…

In a similar theme, (Auto)biography of a Ghost imagines the life and tragic end of the woman reported to haunt a belltower in Nina’s old high school. The ghost in love describes how she fell to her death, rushing to meet the husband she thought was returning home.

There is nothing in the story
about how all her breath rushed from her body
when her foot missed a step; …
nothing about the moment when the air
that held her skin apart from his
collapsed and she was
weightless.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Luminescent
by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134554

Book Review: Girls of the Drift, by Nina Powles

Available from selected booksellers nationwide.

cv_girls_of_the_driftNamed after a 1928 political pamphlet by the same name, Girls of the Drift is a defiantly pink debut from emerging poet, Nina Powles. Weaving real and fictional accounts of women’s stories, it is wrapped in the brightest pink imaginable. To encounter such historical poetry contained within its pages, particularly the delicate feminine portraits, is incongruous at first.

About her poem ‘Josephine’, based on Katherine Mansfield characters, Nina says she was interested in the way ‘the world opened up to [the women] in small moments of colour and brightness.’ The cover is more than just a moment, but perhaps that is the point. It is interesting to note that the women, from the story ‘Daughters of the late colonal’ are symbols of the opressed feminine, who came into themselves only after the death of their imposing father. Nina says she is drawn to thinking about ‘people and places stuck in the in between, caught in phrases of transition.’

The title poem is literally at the heart of the book, a 1929 letter from one poet to another (New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan) that references the above pamphlet and urges her friend to write again (she put down her pen after a period of illness). The reader is immediately thrown into a sensual experience here from the first line:

I pressed a sprig of manuka into the envelope…

Can you smell it? The wild, dry
dust-honey smell of summer in the gorge.

It is fitting that the green twine holding the chapbook together is like holding the sprig there in your hand. There is something reminiscent of tying a string around your finger in order to remember something important. In this letter, it is the girls of the drift, the ones who might drift into domesticity with barely an education, that Blanche promises to remember through her activism. This thought is echoed in the strings, knots and ribbons that pepper the poems. These symbols can of course also refer to apron strings and matrimonial bindings.

The continual reference to birds is a metaphor for the ability of women to soar above and beyond these traditiional constraints. These conditions are likened to sticky jars filled with bitter marmalade and honey (a trap?) in several poems. This is brought home distinctly (and in capitals no less) in the poem ‘Burn Back’:

MY WORDS ARE WASTED ON THINGS THAT DON’T FIT INTO JARS

With this reading in mind, the book becomes essentially feminist and a reflection on what it is to be a woman on the verge in a colonial context. The two prophetic wise owls on the cover could be the two poet friends, casting a wise, watchful eye over the girls of the drift.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Girls of the Drift
by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780473308438