Alkali Sink. Stella Beratlis. Sixteen Rivers Press. San Francisco, California. 2015.
These are some mighty fine conversational poems. Beratlis hits the ground running, these poems read like your best, smartest, friend telling you all the latest.
Alkali Sink is jam packed with beautiful and intelligent poems - but the kicker is the tone Beratlis sets - she assumes the audience will be sharp enough to read along. Actually she probably does no such thing and I'm projecting. But the tone is right, sharp and tight, witty.
Crop Rows in Autumn
This is how faces fall apart:
our eyes fixed to a point
somewhere on the flat horizon.
We walk in furrows of rich soil
for years, for a lifetime--
then start following the furrows
to the clouds. This is how lives
fall open: a man loves and hopes
while his wife shrinks
one acre per year; how love
weaves out: a cotton rope tensing
then raveling into many frayed strands,
its shining moments leftover gourds
strewn by the road after harvest.
But we forge ahead like physics,
until longing dissolves
the face, until systems
of measurement are obsolete
and we fix our eyes
on the vanishing point.
Beratlis is machine-shop precise at every step as she maneuvers between worlds, she purveys our ordinary world with extraordinary vision, let's us see a glimpse of her private world. These are intimate poems that speak universal.
Today's book of poetry hates the expression "down to earth". Stella Beratlis is so down to earth you can feel it in her fingers, the smudges on the page. Not Bukowski, drunken rant down to earth, more Anne Tyler down to earth, Sharon Olds earth.
I Heard On The Radio
they are blowing up the sugar plant, so
we drive north to a town of old sharp smells.
The nose tells us we've reached Manteca,
olfactory curiosity, but also the clean rows of
a Greek farmer's vines. In this town, owl decoys
perch on buildings, vigilant with glass eyes.
Airstream trailers peek out behind eucalyptus teeth
and bid hello to the truck drivers who are always
just passing through. We plow
through it all, ferment-stink as
sugar beets roast on slow-moving belts --
and behind that odor, the oil burn of gears that turn efficiently
twenty-four hours a day. But today, all this has given way
to a man saving his place at the chain-link carnival
that surrounds this temple,
and a barker who announces the winner
of a contest to push the plunger
that detonates the charge
that begins the demolition
we've come to witness.
The ceremony starts: a collective twitch
as staccato charges snap the air --
loosening creaky spines and unlacing steel ribbons.
But those old towers hang in the air, stubborn,
releasing dust and exhaling possibility --
then they fall and spill upon the earth.
When the dust clears, we wander back,
desolate, looking for a place,
like people wondering
where to get their next meal,
like the silver pigeons
who have lost a good home.
I felt at home reading these wonderful poems, as though Beratlis was someone I knew and I'd heard versions of these stories, over a glass of red, many times before. That is a compliment.
Alkali Sink is an enormously entertaining read as Beratlis has a sharp sense of humour. You all know how we like a laugh her at Today's book of poetry and Alkali Silk is full of chuckles.
Nature vs. Nurture
In those days, we had no idea
our father was a drug dealer, not really.
Inside his house in a small briefcase
by the kitchen table
were little white packets of cocaine,
baggies of pot. One day, in our early teens,
my sister and I sat alone on the front porch
while our father was at work
butchering meat at the local Safeway.
His neighbor, who stood on a small ladder
trimming his crape myrtle,
exposed himself to us.
When we saw his penis swinging loose
in the space of his open fly,
we ran inside the house
where we debated briefly
before calling the police.
As we waited for the cops to show,
we sat at the Formica table
trying to make sense
of the whole situation,
wondering if we'd made
the right decision, if a man could
knowingly trim shrubs with his penis
dangling there, in the open,
if a father could really keep
a loaded gun behind the front door.
How easily danger becomes
part of the household,
a silly joke about poking
some whores, a favorite uncle--
no one thinks to shield your eyes.
Today's book of poetry was seriously impressed with Stella Beratlis' strong, strong debut Alkali Sink.
If this were the standard for first books the majority of the rest of them would vanish, evaporate, slink down the drain like something washed off in the water.
ABOUT THE AUTHORStella Beratlis grew up in a Greek-American family in Northern California. Her work has appeared in Quercus Review, Penumbra, Song of the San Joaquin, In Posse Review, California Quarterly, and other journals, as well as in the anthology The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010). She is coeditor of the collection More Than Soil, More Than Sky: The Modesto Poets (Quercus Review Press, 2011). Beratlis is a librarian in Modesto, where she lives with her daughter. Alkali Sink is her first collection of poems.
“Stella Beratlis writes unforgettable poems that stir inside you long after you’ve finished reading them. Alkali Sink is simultaneously domestic and wild, urban and rural, full of surprises and wisdom. Your axis may shift after reading this remarkable book. Beratlis is a fierce talent whose beautiful mind encompasses the land, the open road, the kitchen window, and the heart’s inconstancies. Her first full-length collection is one of the best debuts I have read.”
—Lee Herrick, author of Gardening Secrets of the Dead
“In her poem ‘Vitreous Detachment,’ Stella Beratlis asks ‘How do I know?’ In Alkali Sink, a book that is at once sly and precise, honest and unique, Beratlis’s faith in both the interior and exterior worlds can be trusted enough to believe she can answer: with ‘the names of things and their pulpy centers.’ This is a poet in love with the dirt and the lamb, the armored car and the terrible sadness, with chaos and linear thought—everything that might ‘illuminate the several darknesses of the heart’ and the ‘multiplicity of the selves’ within a soul. —Julia Levine, author of Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight
“Alkali Sink reads like ‘a locomotive / speeding through a native West / changing the scale of my earth.’ Central California races toward Greece, memory races toward reality, old age races toward youth, but the poems take their time, too, the way trains do, and I can peer into backyards and orchards and used-car lots as I go. At first I was here and now I am there, and the world I see is different because of how these poems moved me. Stella Beratlis has written a beautiful book.” —Camille T. Dungy, author of Smith Blue
Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher. They are shown here for publicity and review purposes. For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.