Khadija Rouf reviews Into the Same Sound Twice by Zakia Carpenter-Hall (Seren, 2023)
Into the Same Sound Twice contains sixteen poems which follow an opening quote by writer Chris Abani: “Time … is neither linear nor circular. It’s an entanglement”. Abani’s words orient the reader towards the themes to come and Carpenter-Hall doesn’t disappoint; this debut pamphlet dives into alternative realities, playing with time, space, and quantum physics. Angelique Stephenson’s cover artwork perfectly captures these themes with its celestial loops and rays of vibrant yellow and black against moody textured purple.
Carpenter-Hall explores the contrasts and relationships between light and dark, the cosmic and the mundane, and between us and the natural world. Throughout the pamphlet she repeatedly references memory, the elements of fire and water, trans-generational connection, and the presence of trees and roots. She has a keen ear for sound and music; a keen eye for the surreal and the magical. This poet writes with confidence, and her reach is audacious.
The collection opens with a funeral, and closes with a birth. In the opening poem, ‘Shakespeare Honours My Grandmother’, Grandma Ruth’s funeral takes place as the narrator – we assume it is Carpenter-Hall herself – is watching a Shakespeare play. The funeral in the play takes place with theatrical regality; Grandma Ruth’s takes place four thousand miles away with no pomp. The poet juxtaposes the scenes, perhaps experiencing grief through the proxy of the play.
This poet writes with confidence, and her reach is audacious
‘Big Talk’ muses on our inadequate understanding of the universe as we try to approach it through our senses. The poem opens with a quote from Rumi and goes on to reference contemporary quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli, who has written about the crumbling of time and loop quantum gravitation (I won’t pretend to understand the physics). Carpenter-Hall spins her poetry between the meta and the micro with ease, and reading her poetry seems to slow down time. I find lines like this are simply beautiful in their expansiveness:
[…] Space isn’t distinct from matter,
It bends like a seashell around the gravity of planets.
The poet uses a range of poetic forms. Several poems are prose poems; others are in tercets or couplets. Some poems are meant to be seen on the page, the words dancing in their space, as in the impressive ‘The Earth-Eating Fire’ where stanzas are intercut with tiny pictures of leaves, and words cascade down the page like water or scatter like the falling acorns they refer to. ‘Tree Art’ is a prose poem in three paragraphs about the act of the poet’s mother braiding her hair. Carpenter-Hall is a woman of colour, and Black hair has often been the subject of intrusion, oppression and unwanted attention. The poem reclaims her hair; the braiding – an act of intimacy and love between mother and daughter – becomes about their shared roots. Love and nourishment can make hair blossom; her hair “was like the basil plant whose leaves had begun to dry out and curl / inward – once watered, it surprised us all and flowered.”
Roots, history and allusions to racism and a colonial past are subtly woven throughout. In ‘Flesh & Tree’ Carpenter-Hall writes about an ivory salt cellar from sixteenth century Sierra Leone, now in an Oxford museum. The museum is itself now trying to decolonise and tell the truth about its acquisitions and their colonial pasts. It is not clear whether the acquisition is a gift or a theft. The ivory will have been stolen from an elephant. The poet’s imagination takes the bowl of the salt cellar and morphs it into a djembe drum, musing on history and identity:
How do you play an instrument you inherited
But weren’t taught? What will I conjure?
Delight has so many unknown nodes.
Trees are burning in ‘The Earth-Eating Fire’, which looks at human controlled burning versus natural wild fire. Human intervention has messed with nature, she implies; there is a cycle of death and renewal which cannot be tricked forever. Yet amidst the precarity of existence there is still space for love and compassion. In ‘Capea Nemoralis’ there is also the possibility of liberation; “In a cosmos ninety-three billion light years wide and expanding, / you are not a fixed star in anybody’s sky”.
These poems burst with treasures, and yield more each time they are read and savoured
‘What is the Heart of a River’ plays with the implications of the word ‘heart’, reminding us that “Every mammal’s heart / develops in the same way”. A blue whale’s heart, she says in bullet points, is almost as big as a small piano, almost as big as a Harley-Davidson, and weighs about the same as an oil filled drum. The poet references Frida Kahlo’s complex work on identity, duality, love, rupture and repair, and her Two Fridas portrait depicting her externalised heart. It’s a meditation on shared experience. In ‘She Found God in Herself and She Loved Her Fiercely’ Carpenter-Hall continues this meditation, examining the injury of racism, and defiant self love. She writes of how her mother found positive images of blackness in faith, and how her mother and other women exchanged Sudanese frankincense and Tunisian myrrh: “as if by associating ourselves / With rare and beautiful things, we could relearn to see ourselves / As rare and beautiful.”
The collection ends with ‘&’, which relates the story of Carpenter-Hall’s own birth along with her experience of giving birth to her own daughter. She describes a traumatic birth, how it shattered her belief that she was “queen” or “empress” of her body, and ends:
I am almost ready to enter into forgiveness with the same
innocence with which I first entered motherhood,
believing that nothing untoward could happen to me.
This debut collection is expertly crafted, and spans huge themes. There is a deep connectedness between the poems which twist and loop through different realities. Rumi shows up, along with some cosmologists, two Fridas, and various family members; a washing machine produces jazz, a blue whale swims across the pages, and the elements sizzle or drench. I am left with a sense of multitudes; we are all connected by threads, past and present, everything is intermingled. These poems burst with treasures, and yield more each time they are read and savoured.
Dr Khadija Rouf is a clinical psychologist and writer, with a growing interest in the arts and mental wellbeing. She has been working in the NHS since 1991. She also has an MA in Poetry from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry has been published in Orbis, Six Seasons Review, Sarasvati and she is honoured to be included in the NHS poetry anthology, These Are The Hands, edited by Katie Amiel and Deborah Alma (2020). Her poem Tacet recently won joint second prize in the health professional’s category of The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, and her pamphlet House Work (Fair Acre Press, 2022) is available here.