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Animal Life in Bucharest

by John Degen

John Degen meanders through the streets of Bucharest to produce a book of tight images in his first collection of poetry, Animal Life in Bucharest. Degen, a playwright, theatre critic, and freelance arts journalist, creates a poetic travelogue that generally avoids the traps that genre can so often set out. Taking an almost journalistic stance, his poetry mimics the imagery of the black-and-white photography included in the book.

Degen continually sets the scene with sharp descriptions of a walk through the city, and these short-line pieces make up the majority of the book. Still, these poetic vignettes are interspersed with the occasional prose poem, and this is where the writing really starts to move.

Prominent among the “animals of Bucharest” are dogs, allowing Degen to explore his obvious fascination with the tragic life of domestic animals in this tense urban environment. In “Dash” he writes, “every dog in Bucharest / has rubbed against every other / in machine-gun rain.” Throughout the book, dogs are watching with “suspicious, peripheral / canine gaze.” It’s an interesting strategy: twisting the traditional subject position around to avoid the outsider-insider dichotomy of travel writing.

Degen’s not always successful in this, and his status as an outside observer is evident when he describes two women, “their dyed skirts / tucked in neat, deliberate / folds beneath them / they smoke short cigarettes, / spit yellow, and pass between them / a burnished flask, laughing….” Still, the photographic attention to detail and sense of imagistic lushness make for a pleasantly gritty scenario. It doesn’t shake up the world, but it does leave the reader with the impression of having been somewhere else. Amazing for such a short book.