Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis
Reviewed by Linda Scheller
Central Valley is a 450-mile-long stretch of rich soil irrigated by an
extensive system of canals. This extraordinarily productive region abounds in
fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, and poets. The hot sun and wide sky have
nurtured many noteworthy poets, including Philip Levine, Mai Der Vang, and Juan
Felipe Herrera. Another is Modesto Poet Laureate Emeritus Stella Beratlis. Dust Bowl Venus, her new book from
Sixteen Rivers Press, is poetry of place grounded in the Central Valley city of
During the Great
Depression, thousands of people displaced by drought and poverty made their way
to California. One of them was Hazel Houser, a migrant from Oklahoma who
settled in Modesto and became a prolific songwriter of gospel and country hits.
She is the muse of Dust Bowl Venus, memorialized
by Beratlis in poems exploring their shared passions and common struggles.
about desire, folly, and reverence in stanzas that juxtapose incantatory fervor
with plainspoken determination, as these lines from “We Write Songs in His Rent
Controlled Apartment” illustrate:
I beseech thee, stainless quivering leg of bone and ligament,
allow me to finish the entire song. I’m no lead guitarist.
Is the song better served by a sharp tidy solo
or the Janus tremolo of pure feeling? I wonder.
Do not counter with what is known. Fingerpick the hell out of
these strings, in this small apartment with its brief luxuries
and cigarette smoke.
Many of the poems
make reference to ligaments, bone, and the heart, most poignantly when the
speaker reflects on her daughter’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Animal,
Vegetable, Mineral” lays bare the terror felt by a mother shown the image of a
tumor lodged in her daughter’s chest. “Castle of the Mountain” brings the
reader chairside to behold the bag of bright red chemotherapy drug and hear the
tick and beep of the infusion machine. Bertatlis depicts a mother’s anguish,
endurance, and tentative faith with sensitivity and precision.
Dust Bowl Venus is replete with love and
its flip side, loss. “All About Birds: An Elegy” is dedicated to the
assassinated Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As in many of her poems,
Beratlis here employs questions and anaphora to powerful effect, emphasizing
the grief of the beloved survivor:
contains you now? Which bird’s throat?
In the pines,
the wind swept through the thicket, and I saw.
But not all is
gloom in this collection. Beratlis plays with language in asides contained
within dashes like a hand slyly screening the speaker’s mouth, “et cetera”
waving away a rueful reflection, and parentheses cupping a muttered justification.
Numerous poems apostrophize with “O,” and sometimes “Oh” precedes a thought like
a sigh. Archaisms such as “whence,” “woe be unto us,” and “thou” echo the King
James Bible that Houser, a minister’s daughter, transposed into gospel hits. Simultaneously,
the occasional “goddamn” or “busting” keeps the reader in the rough and tumble
West. This excerpt from “Conversation with a Lover About the Louvins”
exemplifies the poet’s whimsical word play:
step down into street; in darkness delight. Next,
rye paired with pear, the pair pared
to leather, bluejean and thigh. Hazel’s rules
for songwriting: Dip from the deeper well. Well, we are.
distance are balanced by scientific allusions interfused with the human condition
in references to physics, botany, astronomy, and geology. The long poem “water
wealth contentment health” alone contains “neurotransmitters,” “epigenetics,” “atmospheric
river,” “genomes,” “fractal,” and “gut-brain.” These notes of erudition
embellish poems that prove both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
address—“my love,” “my dear,” “my citadel fortress”—connects the speaker with
people and things that inspire joy and spark recognition. A tribute to Modesto,
“Republic of Tenderness and Bread” marvels at the community’s kindness. Even
poems of disappointment and heartbreak hold commendable grace as in “Fracture
Mechanics” and “Instant Messaging with Broken Glass” which invoke hard-earned
wisdom with dry humor and a shrug of resignation.
Throughout Dust Bowl Venus, music conveys wonder,
vulnerability, and revelation. As well as Houser’s gospel harmonies and rhythm
guitar, the poems evoke Paganini, reggae, assouf
and corridos, blues, punk rock, and christos anesti sung by the speaker’s
Greek family in a Livermore cemetery. Beratlis composes verbal music by means
of repeated sounds and careful rhythms, with phrases that cycle back like the
chorus of a song, and in the counterpoint of silence. Her judicious use of
spacing and punctuation control the tempo to compelling effect. These lines
from the poem “How to Possibly Find Something or Someone By Praying”
demonstrate the poet’s understanding of the power inherent in end stop and
I’m a typewriter wreck on the highway;
don’t look at me.
You are throwing your voice
into every corner as I hunt and peck
the light fantastic.
neon Lucky Strike sign, vintage automobiles, and other carefully chosen objects
conjure the zeitgeist of Houser’s Modesto. “Historic Structure Report” tenderly
addresses a specific building downtown—“Hush, my monolith”—and describes its
architecture in detail:
The asparagus fern of commerce
overspills your planters,
thrives along your bones,
while inside, borrowed-money ball gowns
and loggia daydreams consider a dance. Your glass,
columns, composite floors, and floral-stamped metal—
those vertical striations raked in cement—
all expressions of a certain mid-century mindset.
Dust Bowl Venus is the cartography of
two lives. Led to the canneries and dance halls of the “beloved city” familiar
to both Houser and Beratlis, the reader is urged to observe, consider, and cherish
people and places. In “All About Birds: An Elegy,” the speaker counsels:
Remember to etch images
and locations into your mind—
this poem is a memory palace:
In a region of relentless heat and meager precipitation, nonetheless, plants, people, and poetry can and do flourish. In Dust Bowl Venus, Stella Beratlis maps one Central Valley city and the intricate traces of the heart.
Sixteen Rivers Press ISBN 978-1-939639-25-7
$16.00 Paperback 80 pgs. https://sixteenrivers.org/order/
Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light from FutureCycle Press. Her writing prizes include the 2020 Catherine Cushman Leach Poetry Award and 2021 California Federation of Chaparral Poets Contest. Her book reviews and poetry recently appeared in Entropy, The Inflectionist Review, Oddville Press, West Trade Review, and The American Journal of Poetry.