Songs of the molten rock: Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland by Katy Didden, Illustrated by Kevin Tseng

Wanderers favor angels;
Bards, obsidian—
.                              rock of old.

Lava IS the dragon

             I clot the sky with gold.  (from “Sing, Lava”)

For many, poetry is an arcane art that seems to appear on the page, the product of some elusive tortured process and, as such, it can intimidate as much as it invites. But that need not be the case. With no intention to understate the poet’s craft and dedication, Katy Didden’s Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland offers unique a poetic experience that allows the reader to “see” how the relationship between a finished poem and its origin evolves. The genesis of this wondrous project arose from the poet’s desire to “write poems in the voice of lava.” To achieve this she turned to the process known as erasure poetry in which an existing text is partially obscured or blacked out to create a new work, often in active conversation with the source material. She “imagined ink flowing over the text in the way lava moves over the land, leaving high features in relief,”  exposing words and letters in its wake.As her thoughts turned to lava, Didden was naturally drawn to Iceland, the complex, geologically dynamic island with a range of volcanic systems, many still active, that produce evolved varieties of lava. An ideal landscape with a wealth of associated textual materials for a poet to draw on. Her source texts range from historical, scientific and literary documents to an interview with Bjork and labels from yogurt and spring water containers. But Didden wished to go further and allow the reader to see the source material and the poem at the same time. In collaboration with graphic designer Kevin Tseng, each poem is presented opposite grayscale versions of the origin texts beneath overlayed landscape photographs shaped and opened up to emulate the flow of lava. The result is original and powerful.

The voice that arises in the poems that comprise this collection is that of the volcanic rock itself, imagined as a vital, fundamental force of nature and a spiritual energy bound to both geological time and modern events. Molten expression of being. It speaks to an ancient past and an uncertain future of climactic upheaval.

Like an animal
I seem to hesitate.

They saw me as a soul—
one who’d listen.

The waves across my red rock
spelled a skin,

filled in
.             blanks of speech,
translating halt by degrees.   (from “Like an animal”)

The haunting illustrations born of word and image are integral to the reading—they invite engagement and as the slow revelation of poetic meaning is captured and mirrored on the facing page. An individual pattern of exploration is likely to develop as one makes one’s way through the book. The Notes at the back include a detailed explanation of Didden’s intention and method and relevant contextual information, followed by a reference for each poem’s source text and a thumbnail of the photograph used with accreditation. I found it most rewarding to begin with the textual reference and image first before turning to the poem and the depiction of its “emergence” from beneath the photograph. It was fascinating to see how the poet uncovered words and passages, sometimes a letter at a time across a wide terrain, other times appearing in small formed segments.

If volcanic forces formed and continue to sculpt Iceland, the sequence of songs in Ore Choir seem to materialize and take shape on the pages of this beautifully realized poetic work. Moving and affecting, it is a multi-dimensional project with broad appeal.

Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland by Katy Didden with illustrations by Kevin Tseng is published by Tupelo Press.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

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