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Poems about the Earth

It was her son, Stefan, who turned Susan Ioannou into a poet of rocks, metals, gemstones and mining.

It was her son, Stefan, who turned Susan Ioannou into a poet of rocks, metals, gemstones and mining. Having described in his application essay to the engineering program at the University of Toronto his love of the outdoors and his experience building a bridge in the Boy Scouts, Stefan wound up, unexpectedly, in geological engineering. It was also very fortunate for Susan who observed her son among his rocks.

“There are some of them right there,” she said, pointing to a shelf. “I could see how he would look at them and handle them. There is a certain aesthetic appeal.”

Looking over her son’s shoulders while he was doing research for one of his professors, she fell in love with the very names of the rocks. “Crustal and grossular,” she says with the delight of a wine taster, the sound rolling off her lips. “Scapolite, rodingites and plagioclase,” the material of multiple-choice tests in geology turned to high art. She is quoting from one of her poems, “Even the Words.”

She does not do things halfway. Over a 10-year period, she worked and reworked the poems in this collection and studied “the Earth,” as she calls it in the subtitle of her most recent work, Looking Through Stone: Poems about The Earth, published in May by Sudbury’s Your Scrivener’s Press. “It is sort of like prospecting,” she says of the long process of writing and revision, research and study that went into this collection. “Digging here, doing some seismic there.”

There can never be too many tools for hard-rock mining. Why not poetry? “There is something about the language of geology that I love,” she says. “A lot of it is very nitty-gritty. The words can create images in themselves.” She does it over and over again in her poems, turning the ordinary into the enchanting. She notices, for example, in a section of her work devoted to metals how mercury forms beads that “won’t soak through the thinnest fabric/but wobble like greasy raindrops/off a duck’s wing.” The interaction of the organic and the inorganic, earth’s time and our own, is a continuing preoccupation and the organizing theme of her collection.

The book is graced by a lovely cover from the Laurentian University Earth Science Department’s photo micrography lab featuring a “thin section” of kimberlite at the front, basalt and grunerite magnetite in the background. In between, the mining industry, chiefly remembered in poetry for mournful songs of former disasters, shines in a new light. It is as if miners still had a canary in the mineshaft along with them as they go down, as in the first line of the poem “Underground” from a section of her work devoted to mining:

Suspended 1,000 metres into the mine
through wire mesh under your boots,
you glimpse lights twinkling
a further 500 metres down,
a black sea netted in stars.

That last is a lovely image. “I don’t think this book will teach geologists anything,” said Susan Ioannou of her work. She is wrong. It will, and a great deal too.


He bids on the obscure: a speck
inching across kilometres of scrub
to map and pick samples out of
or cragged above evergreens, unseen
balancing a magnetometer
to listen to rocks.

He is a gambler:
under snake bellies,
between goat hooves
he trusts silver and zinc are waiting
and surfaces like scooped cream
sprout opals,
or powdered from sunshine are sulphur,
or gritty with Mediterranean blue
hold copper.

Also, he is wary: what glitters
may be the dream
of fools.
Grade must be tested.
What grams to the tonne?
Where too angled, too deep?

A gambler bets
against absolutes.
How much should he dare
to open the Earth
to pick at her secrets
hundreds of metres down?