Jenny Grassl on Katy Didden’s Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland

Ore Choir sings an ode to Lava, in the voice of Lava. Yet, like Whitman’s song these visual erasure poems belong to all creation. God-like in the power to destroy and create, Lava makes land that resembles the life of humans and their spiritual yearnings: “Here a soul found the origin / desire / under all things….” It is the soul and desire of rock that resounds, sung now and long after human life is gone from the planet. Lava shares our mortal fear: ” I still blanche at the void. / The answer is, / again and again, / to erase the ground.” 

Layering source text, poetry, and photographic fragments of the Icelandic landscape, the images give testimony to the earth’s predilection for breakage and change. Word and letter islands erupt as patterns over a landscape, only partially revealed. The volatile topography crinkles, heaves, and vanishes under the poems, the images resembling rodent-nibbled pages of an illuminated manuscript. Precise photographic detail defers to the sweep and gesture of graphic art, the texture often blurred by text, smoke, and steam, to nuanced effect. 

The front cover shows a detail from the last image, speaking to nonlinear time. Words scatter or congeal to soften the impenetrable material of stone. This is work the book takes on—uncovering sentiment-free tenderness in what might appear to be only the violence of volcanoes and the hardness of rocks. ” In love, / beyond these stones, / like water, / I rise.” Land erased by lava, and lava, reimagine themselves, a phantasmagoria at once gleaming and terrifying: “Lava IS the dragon. / I clot the sky with gold.” 

A fainter pulse of the human in a dynamic universe suggests heavenly calm, glimpsed through the rain of lava and color washes of Iceland. Lava wields wisdom of geological and mystical realms: “I add land / and undo the maps. / Leaders stride / across trackless paths, / following the turning law back to the source.” The poems flow with the internal logic of Lava as set forth in the book. Lyric time is deep time. Beginning at the center: “Art is central— / sun and stone. / I trace the beginning / of the modern; / I paint vales.” 

Thwarting the brain’s expectation for saturated colors—specifically red and orange, the fiery reality of lava—the book offers photographs rendered in muted earth tones, (also gray blues and greens). Only occasionally does rock flush with the color of a drying wound. The poems mention the word ‘red’ only briefly. This strategy allows the reader to perceive Lava as pure force and being, rupturing and covering what exists in order to make it new. What is left unsaid, and what is omitted from the spectrum, the reader creates as afterimage. On the page, Lava throbs with white heat. 

The Völva, the Priest, and the Scientist join the choir with questions. Answering the voice of the Scientist, Lava says: “I unmake eternity, / rewild gold, / fluent as the migratory birds / that reverse the ground.” The Scientist asks: “What was fixed? What was fluid?” Lava’s answer: “Lobes crept in hollows. Birds fled.” These are questions we can ask about permanence and erasure, addressing the meaning of absence—the making and unmaking of a country, planet, or a self. When the priest asks Lava, after a great volcanic disaster and miracle: “How do I pray now?” Lava answers: “Nothing lasts. Bless that.” This makes sense in deep time, and signals the inevitable return of earth to a place without humans. The questions arise: Is there light in this? Shall we mourn? 

Ore formed, as a wish to: “know poetry…” and “… (ran) to put an end to war.” War and poetry rear up like newly formed mountains in this chronicled metamorphosis. Geologically there are no surprises, because everything is a surprise. Capitalism gets its own succinct page—a blip in time, eternal consequence: “Capitalism co-opts ore, air, water, hour, epic.” The elements join the ephemeral hour. Nothing is spared. 

The final question of the book is the Scientist’s: ” What lingers? This invites us on a journey into the ore of possibility, and to seek human company in the face of climate change and suffering. In the voice of Lava: “Will you lean on each other / when I wreck the seasons?” 

The relatively shallow space of the visual poems, despite streaks of distant vistas, creates an intimate space for the reader. This is, paradoxically, the perfect space for the eye-of- god vastness of the subject. At the edge of each image, a nomadic coastline is suggested, impossible to measure. 

It is worth mentioning some of the compelling source texts that shimmer behind the upheavals, sometimes creating their own fire. They range from a Siggi’s yogurt label to a Historical Dictionary of Iceland. A recipe for volcano bread makes a cheerful appearance. Benjamin Franklin, W. H. Auden, Jules Verne, and John Ashbery among others, speak from behind and formulate new meanings, interlaced with the lava fields. In this realm of restlessness, Lava is master. 

Jenny Grassl‘s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Boston Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Laurel Review,Green Mountains Review, The Massachusetts ReviewLana Turner, Bennington ReviewPuerto del Sol, and other journalsHer work was published in a National Poetry Month feature of Iowa Review.  Tupelo Press selected her manuscript DEER WOMAN IN THE DINING ROOM as a runner-up for its July open reading in 2021. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems were featured in a Best of American Poetry blog.