Sugar Magnolia Wilson
Because a Woman's Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean
(Auckland University Press, 2019)

Response by Nithya Narayanan

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More than its cover (designed by Keely O’Shannessy), it was the title of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s debut poetry collection that caught my eye. Wilson writes, in the concluding notes, that the book’s title is from an ancient Chinese proverb—but its meaning remains ambiguous. Is a woman’s heart like a needle at the bottom of the ocean because it is difficult to find, difficult to gauge, or difficult to retain?

The poems in this book are stylistically, tonally, and thematically diverse, canvassing everything from Peter Jackson to Haruki Murakami to Frankenstein’s monster. In an interview with Unity Books, when asked to name her favourite writers, Wilson included Han Kang on her list. This isn’t surprising, since there is a lot of Kang in this book. It’s not so much the confrontation of the grotesque that is reminiscent of Kang as the frightening proximity of the terrible to the everyday; the tacit acknowledgement that what is horrific and what is not co-exist, always—in fiction and in life. In ‘The monster’, a moving yet disturbing reimagining of Frankenstein’s monster, the dark is forever in tension with the lovely: “a cock made from the/thick and greening arm of a/19th century wrestler” set against “a rich nebula,/an endless alchemical rotation/amongst the silent stars”. The grotesque body features repeatedly. Eye sockets, phalluses, limbs. And mouths—mouths are everywhere in this book.

Consider, for example, the eponymous ‘Anne Boleyn’, in which Wilson blames the queen’s infertility on egg-eating monsters:

Anne Boleyn had reptilian creatures
dwelling in her ovaries eating
all her eggs
Henry’s sperm, dumb and excited,
would swim in and chomp, chomp
be devoured in seconds […]

Anne, we are told, would have “chewed the top/off Mary’s head/would have gnawed right through/the skull”. Later, Wilson gives us an image of “Catherine’s heart” with “small teeth marks”. Here, the mouth is a site of trauma: an image of pain both inflicted and endured. Contrast that with ‘The monster’, in which the mouth is an agent of love; a fantasy of gentle desire and its fulfilment: “If he had been able to/touch something gently/he might have kissed the/soft curve of someone’s mouth”.

The collection is also endlessly interested in tongues, in languages—in how they overlap, and in the translational gaps that can sometimes never be filled. In ‘Because a woman’s heart is like a needle at the bottom of the ocean’, English often runs unexpectedly into Mandarin. The poem reminded me of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War, in which the deliberate unwillingness to translate becomes a retaliatory act; an act of conscious decolonization. In Wilson’s poetry, though, there is a certain equalizing of languages: English translations are faithfully footnoted for the reader. In ‘Conversation with my boyfriend’, Wilson describes a scene first from the perspective of the (presumably Caucasian) speaker and then from the perspective of her Korean boyfriend. Translation, again—only this time, it is a cultural translation as opposed to a lingual one.

What is most fascinating about this collection is its reversal of ‘othering’ language. Our reference point for what is normal gets lost, dislocated, and then subtly resituated. Take, for instance, the poem ‘Mother’, which ostensibly examines the (human) mother in the style of a nature documentary. You can almost hear the poem in Attenborough’s soft, raspy voice:

Most eggs will be isolated. The surface of each egg has a crack which
channels light out into the darkened world. This light may help to
anchor the newborn to the empty room into which it arrives.

Wilson seems to ‘other’ the human, compelling us to look at ourselves as foreign objects with a kind of tender interest. Hierarchies break down: there is no English > Korean, no human > animal, no human > inhuman, no man>woman. These are poems that challenge perspective; that require us to revise our ideas about the world and our place in it.

The book explores trauma, too, with a piercing realism evocative of Sheryl St Germain. Trauma bleeds into life; life bleeds into trauma and then back again. In ‘Home Alone 2 (with you)’, a movie scene triggers memories of a lost parent; the speaker becomes “a kid who got lost and can’t seem to/find her mother anywhere,/no matter how hard she looks”. It is a loss that seems to resurface repeatedly throughout the collection; later, “she (Mum) is a skellington of/nothingness: shardy bones,/spider webs, a small/tortoise with a broken shell”. Other sorrows are more subtle, like the barren loneliness in ‘Moon-baller’:

I think I am terrified of being
left alone with a spade on a
small, sweet-skinned moon where
the view is beautiful but
nothing will grow.

And yet, given Wilson’s approach to trauma—trauma as persistent and recurring; as a force that manifests repeatedly across time—there is a lot of unplumbed potential for structuring in this book. Interestingly, epistolary pieces surface multiple times, beginning with a set of nine ‘Dear Sister’ poems. Yet there is very little linkage, if any, between the ‘Dear Sister’ poems—which are heavy in descriptions of the natural world—and the vaguely creepy ‘Dear X’, which opens with dreams that the speaker has been having about a lover: “I feel these dreams of mine have/been of your making – that I’ve been called into your subconscious, into/your altered state…”. By the time we reach ‘Pen Pal’, a confused—albeit amusing—patchwork of adolescent strife (“there has been/irregular blood on my shorts –/ a Japanese doctor had to/feel my fanny”), the epistolary format starts to feel slightly arbitrary: there is no real thematic or emotional relationship between the various ‘letters’. It would have been interesting to see the author exploit the letter form as a connecting tool; a single, unifying thread holding the collection together. One strategy might have been to select a single set of letter poems—the ‘Pen Pal’ series, for instance—and to sprinkle its constituent works throughout the book.

In a day and age where the object of all writing seems to be to say something ‘smart’, Wilson’s collection feels refreshing and new. This isn’t a book claiming to be anything it’s not. It’s a tender observation of the small things: a sleeping baby, a film shared, memories of an ex enmeshed with the experience of a current love. Some of these moments feel intimate; a little too personal to be accessible. But in the end, that ceases to matter: the language always unfolds, opens into something new, always becomes—as Wilson writes in one poem—“some kind of entrance or exit”.

 

 

Nithya Narayanan studies English, Economics and Law at the University of Auckland. Her work has previously appeared in Starling, Mayhem, 'Studio Vignettes', and Interesting, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Writers' Cafe 'Best of Auckland' anthology. Nithya has also completed (with distinction) two creative writing courses with the New Zealand Writers' College. When she isn't reading, writing, or pretending to do either, she can be found locating the next new thing to binge on Netflix.