Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis
Reviewed by Linda Scheller
California’s 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 Modesto.
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.
Beratlis writes 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.
Intimacy and 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.
Affectionate 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 enjambment:
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.
A 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.