Looking for Light. Susan Ioannou. Hidden Brook Press. 2016. Reviewed by Sharon Berg.
Susan Ioannou is a highly-skilled crafter of words. Looking for Light does not betray her deft sense of language or fail to offer astute observations of subjects that are both familiar and frightening. In some sections she is focused on grieving, in others she articulates her understanding of basic physics in a way that will leave some of us shaking with reluctance to ever try topping her explanations. She has a grasp of the element of time that stretches beyond her own stand on this earth and her poetry manages both to enlighten and delight us.
Ioannou has a unique but unassuming way of phrasing images. For instance, she speaks of bodies “rag-piled on a sidewalk grate” (Make It Beautiful), or a driver in the rain “star[ing] through sheeted panes” (Bagni di Lucca), or a sharp cliff is “bristled steep with black pines” (Night Train Through Matapedia). Her images are clear and sharp, drawing the reader so close they can imagine her breath as she reads the words aloud, helped by her line breaks to see the writer’s intent as she lays type to page.
This book is arranged in four parts: Make It Beautiful, Beyond Knowing, Passing Seventy, and Epilogue. Each section gathers poems that speak to the context of those subtitles.
In Make It Beautiful, the poems speak to her strong desire for something better in human responses to places she travels to – places where Shelley stayed (Bagni de Lucca), Greek islands (Imagine That Greek Island), or a train trip across Quebec (Night Train Through Matapedia).
The land is heavy with shadows
except above, a prick of light
follows, forest by forest, field after field,
a quiet constant, pinning the night
over the shivering atmosphere.
(Night Train Through Matapedia)
She recognizes and dissects a sexual desire for her younger student (Poetry Class), remembers a friend who has passed (The Artist Passes), or she contemplates the place that the Muse assumes in an artist’s life (Sculptor, Jinn). In all of these examples, at the root of her poems, she expresses a desire that human beings behaved better toward one another and their environment.
At last, you turn off the highway to find
from guidebook phrases long memorized
“the countryside dotted with villas”,
and slithering down toward Devil’s Bridge
face Shelley’s once exquisite view
flooded – a valley oozing muck,
plastic bags, and shreds of paper
snaggled on branches and bushes.
(Bagni de Lucca)
In Beyond Knowing, she deals fearlessly with the cosmos and God through poems about our Creator (Creator, Far North), the response we take to natural disasters (Looking), understanding the balance of natural ecosystems (Who Would Be God?, The Listeners), understanding destiny when we have lost our faith (In Search of New Credos), and embracing quantum physics (Photon, (In)Substantial, God Particle). She also brings it all home to the reader during child’s play (Scientist, Spinning Top).
I do not believe in the Higgs Boson,
a subatomic ‘God Particle’
scientists hope would explain
how energy in the universe
blossoms into mass
In Passing Seventy, Ioannou deals with grief (Grieving, Wishes) and the way older people are misunderstood and underestimated (Secret, Bed). She offers the experience of slowing down as one gets older (Tightrope, Rusting), having a stroke (Mini Stroke) and undergoing eye surgery (Eye Surgeon). She offers her thoughts on the end of life (Weighing Ends, Finale, Passing, Crossing) apart from grieving, and wonders about the hereafter (Transparence, Idea).
In my next life
after long intermingling
and being reshaped by the earth,
I would return as an opal,
the delicate fires of the poet
shifting with every dip in the light
Finally, in Epilogue, she offers just one poem called The Choice. It addresses her “translucent unknowns” and “uncounted ghosts”, saying she has “heard distant voices singing/ silver on icy air” and yet, she is “told that giving all to words/ is worth the harm”.
But that is not all there is to a book. As a book designer and publisher, I am always looking at both the work of the author and the publisher when I review a book. It needs saying that whoever designed this book should understand there is an understood format for a book with sections or chapters. A new chapter should always start on the right-side page. In designing this book, they let the introduction to a new section fall on the left-side page rather than leaving that one blank and starting the new section on the right. It would not have added to cost of the book to do so. As it is arranged, several pages are crowded together, leaving seven pages at the back of the book blank!
However, the arrangement of the sections in the poems also needs addressing because there is no consistency to this in the book. The first poem is laid out fine, but the second is given a new page for every section, leaving vast gaps in some instances. The reader thinks the poem has finished, only to turn the page and find out it is far from done. In addition, the author biography and list of publications are set in a different font size and line spacing.
All of these issues of design make the book itself appear less professional. The cover art is okay but inside, it looks like something that has been hurriedly gathered together. Still, Looking for Light is a well-crafted collection of poems. Ioannou operates with a true poet’s hand…
then I am told that giving all to words
is worth the harm