Kirsten McAteer on Katie Didden’s Ore Choir

As I sat down to write about Ore Choir, Kate Didden’s gorgeous book of poems subtitled The Lava on
Iceland, I logged on to glance at the Guardian quickly first and read that Iceland has declared a state of
emergency on the Reykjanes Peninsula due to a series of earthquakes which could signal a volcanic eruption.
How fitting. Ore Choir, which was published last year by Tupelo Press, is a unique book. Didden set herself a
task to write poems in the voice of lava. I think to give voice to the non-human – without projecting onto it,
forcing it into some sort of a symbol or anthropomorphizing – can be extremely difficult to do. It is hard to
find the right distance. Here, however, she does it beautifully, and you feel what that world changing force
would utter, if it could – and it is eerily powerful. “In Iceland, I cut the numb ocean, herd the Holocene
waves, hasten cod, to hear rowers slip over cobalt: a lithic potion.”

She accomplishes this through collaborations or conversations. One is through the use of erasure, or
as she writes in the notes, “the poetic process was more like exposure than erasure.” She converses with
source texts, chosen from a variety of material (historical, scientific, literary), that address Iceland and lava.
Erasure seems to be having a moment (I’m thinking of Nicole Sealey’s recent book-length erasure poem
drawn from the Ferguson Report), but the use of the poetic form in this instance, is almost a metaphor in and
of itself for what lava flows do: they cover, chew up, erase and transform existing landscapes and in their wake
hot springs bubble up, pitted lakes, tubes and caves are exposed. It was important to her that readers could
see the source text, so she collaborated with the graphic designer Kevin Tseng to create a process where a
colored photograph of Iceland is layered on top of the source text in grayscale, with the phrases, words or
letters of the found poem pulled through to emerge as if out of the landscape itself. The images aren’t static;
they seem to evoke the earth in the process of transformation, in which the poems are found. Indeed, Didden
dedicates the book to Tseng, “who gave these fires form,” which is apt, for as in any good collaboration, both
image and poem are essential to each other.

In this age of the anthropocene, when it is easy to think that we have all the power to destroy, alter,
take the magic out of whatever is wild and non-human in the world, this book is a refreshing antidote and an
important one. I think it can be helpful and humbling to remember that there are forces much more ancient
and powerful than us. I remember lying on the ground in Iceland as a young woman, and how oddly warm
and alive it felt against my back. Dodden was partially inspired by the Laki eruption in Iceland of 1783-84,
which led to disruption and famine in places as far away as Japan and Egypt and the deaths of 6 million
people. It is sobering to think about what another eruption could do. Interspersed throughout the book are
three conversations where a völva (an old norse female soothsayer), a priest and a scientist question the lava.
I found the section with the priest particularly moving. His questions are taken from the sermons and
journals of Jón Steingrímsson, a pastor who witnessed the Laki explosion and whose congregation was barely
spared. The priest asks, “Noone unsees such death. How do I pray now?” The lava answers, “Nothing lasts. Bless
that. Mosses assemble in the ash. What’s beneath is fire – the world abides there.”

Kirsten McAteer lives in Portland Oregon and is a poet and therapist.  She holds an MFA from New York University. Her poems have appeared in various journals, and recently one was longlisted for the Australian Book Review’s Peter Porter Prize. She is currently working on a full-length collection.