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Killing Things

by John Degen

John Degen’s 2000 poetry debut, The Animal Life of Budapest, was a slim, strong evocation of a very particular city and its discontents. Killing Things pursues his fascination with place, stopping in London, New York, and Toronto among other recognizable settings. The new collection is not only longer than the first, it also feels more travelled, with a wider horizon encompassing a greater range of subjects and styles.

Many of these poems are almost cinematically on location. In a rumination about the United States, we’re told “All anyone needs to do/to get America, to/really get it,/is to stand solidly just there,/three steps down from Lincoln level/on that giant rectangular rock/on the edge of the Potomac.” This poem is a three-pager, a long narrative work punctuated with the sharp insights of a Canadian abroad: “a jogger – a man/so good-looking, so solidly American, gazing/at me and wondering how I am.” Yet despite its shambling gait, the poem yields an unexpected vision of what it is to “really get” America – and it’s worth waiting for. The same can be said of most of the poems here.

Degen’s first book was veritably Ondaatjean in its profusion of symbolic dogs; Killing Things repeatedly deploys fish to hook a number of recurring themes, which often come together, in a seemingly careless fashion, in a single poem. In “Certain Talents,” a friend’s penchant for swimming deep underwater, calmly toying with death, is described with liquid clarity: “Scott is winning because, after/thirty years, he can/still empty his lungs/without fear, can make/of his mind a fish tail slipping off/into coppery darkness.”

Killing Things is expertly tethered in reality. On the other hand, some the Toronto references – especially to the Annex area – are so relentless you feel as though Degen actually wanted to limit some of the poems to a neighbourhood readership. Even these poems, though, eventually morph into a gratifying symbolism. It’s at these moments of connection that interesting things happen.


Reviewer: Jana Prikryl

Publisher: Pedlar Press


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 88 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-9686522-8-X

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 2002-5

Categories: Poetry