Book Review

The Icelandic word for “lava” is hraun, and there are over four hundred named lava fields in Iceland. The artist Roni Horn inventoried these names in her typographic drawing Lava Fields of Iceland, a thicket of place names I used to daydream about in the months before leaving on a Fulbright to Iceland, never imagining the nine months would extend to nine years. With my Icelandic dictionary, I played at literal translations of the names: Kapelluhraun (chapel lava), Berserkjahraun (wild and frenzied lava), Dimmuborgir (dark cities), Lambafitjuarhraun (lamb fat lava). Later, I would learn many of these place names recall figures in folk tales and the sagas, but this, my initial encounter with a language brimming with the hraun suffix, was at once an encounter with geology and landscape.

The strange and varied shapes that lava takes as it’s ejected through vents in the earth’s surface are conjured in Katy Didden’s Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland, a collection of erasure poems that propose to speak in the voice of lava. “I change / when I meet air—” says the opening poem. One response to the fear of the unknown, to “blanching at the void,” is “again and again, // to erase the ground.” This first poem sets up the book’s central analogy: the practice of generating poems through erasure parallels the action of lava in creating new landforms: “I signal first in tremors.”

Many of Didden’s erasures are paired to Kevin Tseng’s illustrations incorporating the poet’s source texts, which range from science, to history, to marketing copy. The printed page is reduced to a greyscale monochrome and overlaid with a landscape photo, the poet’s plucked letters and words circled in white and surfacing on the page like rocks rising out of the sea. Curious to read the source texts, I had to look through the landscape for the text, strain to read the words, and then, like a rabbit-duck illusion, the landscape would gain ground and I couldn’t look both at the landscape and read the words.

Tseng’s images are a striking conflation of text and landscape, a process also the subject of a poem about landscape painting. “The easel leaner / aims to unblur Iceland,” writes Didden. The painting is “an argument” and “an archive of gestures.” The source text is an article by John Ashbery on Louisa Matthíasdóttir whose landscapes are flat expanses of bold color. Didden’s erasure opines: “There are the landscapes of Iceland, // as well as ideas which block the view.” Certainly, this was my experience of standing at the edge of a moss-covered lava field or among giant fissures: my perception of Iceland’s eccentricities was shaped, if not blocked, by my own susceptibility to pictorial conventions. In this poem, I read Didden’s use of “block” as not only meaning obstruction but also in the theatrical sense of  “blocking,” as a staging of actors in relation to a camera. A four-line poem alluding to Iceland’s dependence on camera-toting tourists is the result of erasing the label from a bottle of Icelandic spring water:

Wilder than
      a massive volcanic eruption,

capitalism co-opts
      ore, air, water, hour, epic.

Many poems are inspired by the Laki eruption of 1783-4 that devastated Iceland, destroying half of the country’s livestock and resulting in a famine that killed nearly a quarter of the population. The eruption was the largest lava flow ever recorded anywhere, and its movements over an eight-month period were documented by a local priest, Jón Steingrímsson, whose precise observations, I’ve been told by a University of Iceland geologist, are still studied today. Steingrímsson inspired Didden’s poem “The Priest Questions the Lava,” its closing stanza, spoken in the tongue of lava, echoing the sounds of a hissing lava stream:

   Nothing lasts. Bless that.
Mosses assemble in the ash.
      What’s beneath is fire—
         the word abides there.

This poem is one of three that interview lava. “The Scientist Questions the Lava” includes a set of imperatives, like test questions: “Define Deep Time. / List skies. / Measure the ruin of days.” In “The Völva Questions the Lava,” the replies are cryptic, as if those of an oracle: “I unmake eternity, / rewild gold, / fluent as migratory birds / that reverse the ground.” Didden’s question-and-answer poems are the result of a double erasure of the same source, first to discover questions, second to locate answers—one is answered by the very same material that generates questions.

Reading Ore Choir, attentive to its underlying geology-poetry analogy, I was reminded of creation myths that puzzle how something comes from nothing, how order emerges from chaos, and, in Ore Choir, how words emerge from rumblings and tremors. The poem “The Ore” compares the beats of poetry to lava hurtling from “a lone vent”:

mud-red waves lacing the shoal
with plosives, a tone

that stunned war, and carried
the caesura. Hence poetry is in beats.

Writing this, I hold a black lava rock in my hand, its ropy, drapery-like folds resemble a fragment of Hellenistic sculpture. Turning the rock over, it is as if I cradle an entirely different object: the rock is riddled with tiny holes left by gases escaping as lava shooting through the air began cooling mid-flight—a lattice of escape hatches. Maybe a poem can be like this, Didden seems to suggest, the result of fiery matter in collision with atmosphere: “Wild comes the molten ore / out of the earth / daydreaming.”

About the Reviewer

Eva Heisler has published two books of poetry: Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic (Kore Press, 2013) and Drawing Water (Noctuary Press, 2013), excerpted in BOMB. Honors include the Poetry Society of America’s Emily Dickinson Award, and fellowships at MacDowell and Millay Arts. She was co-winner of the 2021 Poetry International Prize, and poems are forthcoming in the Ilanot Review and Michigan Quarterly Review.