The other day, I was looking over the introductions I’ve written for past Poetry Features, as well as some book reviews I’ve written over the years, and I noticed that certain words kept popping up: poignant, taut, funny, gutsy, lyrical, narrative, sincere, etc. Given that a review tells you as much about the reviewer as it does about the book or batch of poems being reviewed, I’m definitely starting to see a pattern here.
I’ve never been a fan of artists who contemplate the cosmos but forget to thank the waitress who refills their coffee. There’s a Sharon Olds poem called “Ode to a Composting Toilet” that I love to assign to my students—not just because it’s funny and semi-profane but because beneath the turns and humor, it subtly makes the point that any truth worth knowing has to acknowledge the existence of shit as well as stars.
If you take all of the qualities I love in poetry—lyricism, Zen-like attention to detail, a feeling of sincerity/integrity, and a sardonic sense of humor—you have the poetry of Peter Bethanis. I first came across his book, American Future, two years ago … and I’ve been recommending this guy ever since. His work reminds me of Li Po with a jug of cheap wine, getting drunk beneath the stars—yet so much of Bethanis’s imagery (train tracks, segregated bathrooms, rednecks, dead deer strung up in barns, Walter Cronkite, etc.) feels distinctly American.
Whether he’s writing about shoes or natural selection, Bethanis has a fantastic knack for blending economy of language with rugged beauty and accessible narrative, the result of which is a biting but forgiving commentary on human nature and this inconsistent, impermanent world in which we live. There’s a muscular quality to these poems, a fierce and philosophical intelligence balanced by tenderness and heartbreak. These are the kind of poems that don’t just entertain, witness, or criticize. They say something about what it means to be human—about how to be human—by refusing to elevate the poet over the subjects he’s writing about.
OK, OK, enough of my rambling. Just read these poems; you’ll be glad you did!
About Peter Bethanis
Peter Bethanis’s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Poetry, Tar River Poetry, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, River Review, Country Journal, and the Indianapolis Star among others. In 1995 he was selected by James Dickey as winner of the Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Prize. His poems “American Future” and “Li Hua’s Messenger” have been selected as featured poems on Poetry Magazine’s website. He has been a finalist in the New Issues Poetry Prize and the National Poetry Series. His poems have been anthologized in several collections including The Hecht Poetry Anthology and the Mellon Poetry Anthology. He is the author of two books, Dada and Surrealism for Beginners from Random House and American Future, a collection of poems, from Entasis Press. He has taught at several universities and is currently a professor in the writing program at Ball State where he has taught for fifteen years.
Photo by Jennifer