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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Book Review 'Six Days in Iceland'

It is wonderful to discover unique poetry projects that combine a variety of elements. During the course of my Masters research I came across several such books, including Cynthia Hogue's book of interview poems on Hurricane Katrina 'When the Water Came', and Claudia Rankine's 'Don't Let Me Be Lonely', both of which combine unusual poetry styles with photographs and images respectively. Both make for powerful elegies in their own right.

However, I have never come across a project as unique as 'Six Days in Iceland', a book which includes stunning poetry by Alyson Hallett, photographs from several talented Geography students at the University of Exeter's Cornwall Campus, and geographical text by academic Chris Caseldine.

When Alyson contacted me, I thought the project sounded interesting, though I have to confess a level of wariness when the plainly jacketed red and white book arrived on my desk. This impression was quickly appeased when I glanced at the poems.

Alyson has an eloquent simplicity that conveys her experience of the dramatic landscape of Iceland in a way that made me experience it too. This book comes at a time when I have glaciers and water in my imagination anyway, having recently written two poems around these images, but even were that not the case I would still have been disarmed by this book.

I love the way time is compressed by the glaciers, a phenomenon that the Chris writes about in his section of the book. As a reader I all at once felt the isolation and the desperate beauty of this landscape.

Based on the experience of a field trip to Iceland, the book brings this trip to life. The experience is made all the more palpable by the stunning photographs by Anna Caseldine, Francesca Clark, Sam Inglis and Alyson herself. One of the most alarming of these appears on page 39. This shot, taken by Alyson, shows a long, deserted bridge stretching on into a distance of clouds and grey headland. I actually commented to Adam that this photograph made me think of what death is like.

here in the clean air of the mountains
we learn that we are able to die-

(Hallett 23)

Yet it is not only the poetry and photography that make this such an emotive reader experience, but also the understanding of the history of the landscape that comes in the final section of the book. Interestingly, as I moved from reading Alyson's poems to Chris' geographical text I felt as though I was still reading poetry. There seems to me something innately poetic about these geographical terms: 'geological', 'lithified', 'glacial'. This experience was unexpected for me, but demonstrated a tangible affinity between poetry and landscape that I have never really 'felt' before.

The history of Iceland and the 'aliveness' of the glaciers was enlightening to read about. At one point Chris describes how the ice 'deforms and creeps and moves' (54), in a way that made me suddenly aware of the world as a living thing. Obviously I know that the world is a living thing, but this text made that fact more real. Not only this, but the glaciers act as a historical map, or as Chris puts it 'by walking up the ice it is possible to step back in time through the eruption history of the neighbouring volcanoes' (52). In this way, it is clear to see how Alyson comes to the conclusion that

We are not so different, we and our world,
nature massed on moss and stone,
maps, measurements, an atlas of moraines

these readings of land, a reading of ourselves.

(Hallett 27)

There are few books that I immediately want to give to everyone I know, but this is one of them. Alyson is the first writer in residence with a geography department, and if this book is anything to go by, I sincerely hope for more of these residencies.

Please visit Alyson's website for more information about her career as a writer, and watch out for an interview on the Cyprus Well website, coming in February.

For more information on Chris' research, please visit his staff profile.

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