19 September 2016

Geopoetry: a short recounting of Virginia’s long history

Posted by Callan Bentley

…And now for something completely different!

This past weekend, my family gathered in Capon Springs, West Virginia, to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday. She asked for an unusual birthday gift – an original poem from each member of the family. Writing poetry isn’t something most of us do, but my mom was an English teacher in her career, and poetry is important to her. Collectively, we acquiesced and set our pens to paper.

Ultimately, I found my muse in the geologic history of my state. While I don’t expect my epic to win any literature awards with the results, I feel like it’s perhaps worthwhile to share it here. Writing it was a unique exercise in my mind’s experience. As you’ll see, I wasn’t entirely able to get away from jargon (and in fact, the toothsome flavor of geology words is one of the reasons it’s so fun to write about, as John McPhee has noted), but I did manage to come up with a few new ways of describing geologic actions. See what you think.

If you write any geopoetry (a phrase popularized by Harry Hess) of your own, I hope you’ll post a link to it in the comments below. If you’re an educator who uses poetry or other creative (nontechnical) writing in your geoscience courses, I’d be keen to hear about that too. Prior to this past week, it never would have occurred to me to assign poetry to students, but I think it could be an option for the right student.

Without further ado, here’s my geological history of Virginia, translated into a poem:


Deep sockets of magma

An oatmeal of chunkety crystals

Gradual uplift, a feldspar at a time

Seeping, soaking hot days

Freezing nights; prying fingers of frost

A loose mountain dandruff of grus

Seismic judder

Hissing and gurgling from a crumbling crack

Steam in thickets the color of cheese

Upwelling earthsap, exploratory lobes stretching and bubbling

Glassy rinds congealing, shattering, turning over and being resorbed

Topped next century by another

Lava stacked on lava, half a mile thick

And one day, it’s over, and time goes by and nothing but entropy happens

Heat is dissipated; the cold rock contracts and sinks

Before fifty million years have elapsed, the cool kiss of the sea

is lapping at this monument to past excitement

Pebbles accrue; sand piles up

Estuarine muck and clay receive the footprints of seafloor scuttlers

A Cambrian Davy Jones’ locker, full of trilobites

An freight train of sand convulses by,

its caboose shot through with bristles and tubes

Clearing waters, Bahamanian distillates

Seafloor hailstones rolling and growing

Gritty-hearted gobstoppers of Paradise

Seaslime domes grazed by terrible snails

A hundred thousand millennia of aquatic ions meeting, linking,

raining out like cold smoke

Puddinglike carbonate goo

Studded with walnut husk brachiopods

Traced with echinoderm stems

Each year, an iotasworth blanket of fresh lime weighed down the bottom

and the seafloor subsided by one iotasworth

A shallow eternity, until the bottom dropped out

Vertigo as we peer into the unlit depths

Two hundred miles to the east, an brutal archipelago approached

Ancient Tamboras and Pinatubos convulsing in heaving thunder

Ash sifted into the sea, settling to the ever receding bottom

Submarine landslides gushed silently and slowly by,

Phantasmic leviathans each leaving a trace of sand draped in mud

Like a conveyer belt delivering groceries,

subductive peristalsis at an Iapetan trench

drew Africa ever closer

Soon Mauritania and Morocco were nuzzling up

Insistent and then violent

Wrenching pressure that, in the end, could not be resisted

A slow motion wreck,

arching them up, tipping them back, shoving them westward,

and up and up and up

Trauma caused changes:

The ancient lava turned green as it cooked

The ancient mud took on a splitting fabric

The ancient sand distorted, speck by speck, to the shape of a fleet of minuscule zeppelins

Where once there had been ocean

Mountains now rose

Beneath them, the strata once parallel with the horizon now buckled and piled

Atop them, landslides and debris flows coursed downhill

carrying newly liberated clasts

Among them, grains of zircon

Which journeyed fro their Appalachian source on Permian Mississippis westward

to their “final” resting place among the Araucaria trees of Arizona

Before that Forest was Petrified, it was buried in Alleghanian detritus

The crunching and grinding and thickening and erosion and flow

grew the lofty Appalachian seam,

stitching the heart of Pangaea in an Alpine colossus

When the tectonic tide began to ebb

It was expressed as a series of fissures, rending the crust

To the beat of earthquakes and avalanches

These Triassic Olduvais yawned wide, gulping gravel

The shores of its lakes pressed by the feet of therapsids

Faults tapped the hot mantle,

conducting and weeping basalt over the continental wound

One of these rifts stretched so wide, the supercontinent broke clean in two

One piece of Pangaea scooted east,

while our land headed west

The Atlantic flexing wide in their mutual wake

Shorelines twitching back and forth;

Sea level unable to make up its mind

Each transgression leaving a fresh blanket of shells

A comet dunked hard

through these layers and into the crust beneath

spewing molten rock up and down the coast

An annular trough and a central peak beneath the Chesapeake

More layers laid down, full of steroidal scallops

and the cast-off teeth of cartilaginous patrols

Cold times came, and the rivers bit in

chewing downward through the old cold rock

The landscape stretched itself vertically,

newfound relief like an exaggerated memory of the bygone glory days