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Same But Different by Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi (Hazel Press)

Same But Different by Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi (Hazel Press)

     This enthralling collection is a collaborative project by two award-winning poets that was developed during the lockdown of 2020 in a dialogue between Penzance and Sheffield. They exchanged artwork and their favourite poems, and doing so triggered the compositions that were published without attribution after a year of conversation. Hazel Press focuses on environmental issues, climate change and feminist writing, emphasising the possibilities of renewal and survival. The poems in this collection are loosely and poignantly in line with these themes and go beyond them. The poems work in pairs and are divided into ten sections that are reminders of lockdown situations, such as the future, reflection, rise and take or give. Instinctively, we read the poems in pairs and probably think that maybe one was written by Naomi and the other by Mort. But which poem did each of them write? We will never know.

     In a podcast recorded at the LRB bookshop they explain that the process started from images they exchanged and a poem. Then they wrote two poems in response, producing something that they call ‘the same and different’. However, nothing is ‘the same’ in this collection; each poem is unique in its skilfully crafted language and fresh imageries:

[…] At dusk, 

I open the pantry door and he charges towards it 

barreling, a ball of midnight, muscular shadow,

come to shame me with his bravery. In India, 

in the north where wild bamboo grows

there is a rat flood every fifty years.

[…]

When rats move past me

I become a figure of speech in his damp world.

Which of us is living now? We are finished 

with words.                                                               (‘Rat’)

     One poem answers another, though they are not necessarily in the same pair. Multiple strands interweave with different topics, such as animals, the outdoors, family, children, writing, successes and failures, and the pandemic is always subtly present. Time magically expands in a constant meditation as if it has no limits. We have time for everything and for nothing during the lockdown: everything might happen and yet we live with restrictions and limitations. It is the imagination that therefore creates this expansion. Thoughts unravel and produce what is impossible in the real world, at least for a while:

the first time she finds herself      among brown strands

between fear and wonder      floating      in this other world

of upside down       a place a person could wed herself to

so much dank silence       beyond her breath       the gentle

murmur of limbs       in suspension       their arc and splay

there’s no peace like this in the dry country

(‘in the kelp forest’)

     The atmosphere evoked in the poem is a reminder of Alice in Wonderland, its dreamlike tone, weightless fall and suspension in the rabbit hole symbolically linked to the conditions during the pandemic.

     In this fruitful dialogue, friendship and sisterhood flourished between Naomi and Mort. However, their communion develops in independent paths in a multifaceted vision that is committed to conveying seriously good poetry. The power of imagination is therefore revealed in all its strength; it fills the void of the pandemic in the act of storytelling that is renewing despite drawbacks and failures:

Each morning, I have filled myself

to brimming with the scent of our child,

with coffee and good intentions,

playgroups and home-made dens

then each evening I have set myself down

on an unmade bed, emptied.                                               (‘Glass’)

As soon as I’d cleaned my aching teeth

I focused on failure

hugged it to me for hours

After a quick soup and salad

I took my failure for a walk

paraded it round the village each day

saw the tide rise and fall on                                     (‘Small Yellow Boat’)

The poets eventually invest in emotions. Their feelings guide them in the intricacies of the unpredictable and apparent ordinariness of the lockdown, its silence and forced stillness. The dynamic of creativity breaks this destiny and spurs new views and new forms.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st February 2022

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