canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Killing Things
by John Degen
Pedlar Press, 2002

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

John Degen’s second book of poetry shows a greater control of line and language than much free verse, as well as a strong sense of voice, one able to sound out the diverse connotations of the book's title. "Killing Things" can mean "the killing of things" (murdering them), as well as "things that kill"; this latter phrase can, in turn, mean things with murderous intention (obviously, like 'weapons of mass destruction'); or/and it can mean "things of sublime aspect", taking "kill" in the current slang sense, as in "That kills!" (is "cool" or "great" or "beautiful").

Listen, for example, to the final poem of book, "My Island":

I have lived on an island
too long,
walked too many beaches
and counted far
too many waves.

I have looked at the city
like a photo of itself,
across the water,
alive with friends,
and have turned my back,
seeking gulls.

I have taught the walls
of my small room to ask,
Where is your wife?
Where are your children?
I have heard children in the trees.

This red bicycle hurts me now --
I look at the city
and think,
fall on top of me now,
bring all the bricks down on me,
I'm ready now.

It is the emotional candour and the simplicity of language and imagery which is appealing here. Other poems employ a richer, stranger language, producing haunting visions -- "Neighbours are Dangerous", for example, or “The Rats Outside Me”, which clearly develops the nightmare implicit in the books' title:

Spines pulled in an inflexible
French curve, all haunch to keep their mouths
at the earth, licking dust,

they are scuttling eggplants, gray-brown from
rot but clean in their fashion,
in the way wet gravel is clean.

I question only the where of them,
their sudden and marvellous attendance,
their subtle rule,

like they've read their own stories, and laughed
well over them, wondering how we have
so completely missed the point of being rat.

Two of them wrestling in an alleyway
on Huron Street, a rat wheel in perpetual motion
until the wall breaks them apart, hissing,

punch drunk they face me,
certain in the direction of events to follow.

And, after visiting Michael for the last time,
I watch one cross Elizabeth Street to the hospital,
heading in to visit the disease.

Killing Things is divided into three sections: "Things that kill", "A deadly physics" and "The 400 series poems". While there are overlaps, the first section is mostly comprised of poems set in Toronto; the last section contains poems set in more rural areas of Ontario; and "A deadly physics" is a short sequence of more abstractly philosophical, ironic pieces of an aphoristic quality. Most of the poems in the book use the conventional structure of lyrical verse -- epiphanic reflections on particular situations -- while several others (the three part "Sibelius Park" and "Everything That's Not There", "Bathurst", "District of", "Summer at Oro") are constructed of layers or juxtapositions of metaphorically related anecdotes and images. At their most successful, Degen’s poems balance concrete, specific details and symbolic imagery in coherently focused revelations.

“Ontario Gothic”, for example, is strikingly frank and bold, caught between confessional memoir and dream-vision. The speaker has gone to the neighbours' "to borrow / something or make an announcement, / the kind of thing a child can't mistake / without trying." The second stanza describes a lake or bog area that he must cross and the "three giant hounds, thick-skulled behind a fence" -- evoking the figure of Cerberus and a dangerous descent or transition in the boy's life, for he will "mistake" his errand, trying not to be a child any longer. The neighbour is a fisher and hunter ("This is the house where fish go to die / and moose are brought in pieces, like lumber / from the woods") further developing the sense of threat. The speaker meets only the wife and her son there: "she is married to blood and / has brought blood into the world, formed it / for a time into Danny, a son aimed / at stone walls, highway ditches and roadside trees" (a great one-clause characterization of the boy). The speaker watches the wife "paring something ... an apple maybe, something / white when revealed, spiralling dull skin to / the counter top" -- again, an image of dangerous transformation (a shedding of skin). Then:

She smiles as the knife slips
cleanly through her thumb; outside,
the lake is coughing up more fish for her dinner
and a failed impulse has me stalled at
the threshold of her kitchen, watching
the apple recoat; she smiles like a
tourist sizing up a snapshot,
no sure protocol for what should happen next.

I cross to the counter, feet heavy with confusion,
and kiss her strong on the mouth, a brown
and tropical mashing of lips, rust-flavoured and tense,
a hopeless gesture tooled by ignorance,
but final and large and angry.

"She smiles like a / tourist sizing up and snapshot" is a fine simile; and the "gesture" being "final and large and angry" is very evocative, the rhythmic pacing just the right effect. The poem ends with Danny, the son, threatening the speaker, who then flees, expecting "the first crack of doom" -- "but she's ash now, so, finally, there's an end to it."

“Your city is the edge of something”, begins “It is Your City”, and the omenousness of that “edge of something” is sometimes problematic in Degen’s collection: while omen and mystery are intriguingly suggestive, a reader sometimes feels the point is not quite brought into focus, "something" remains unclear (note how many "somethings" appear in "Ontario Gothic"). This lack of clarity is, in fact, reflected in some of the more successful and interesting poems, those suggestive of a poetics-in-the-making. “Certain Talents”, for example, is ostensibly about the poet swimming near Peterborough with his friend, Scott, a recurrent character in the collection. [This is, by the way, one of Degen's techniques of establishing integrity in the book, or what would be called 'realism' were this prose fiction -- periodic reference to a handful of people, or 'characters'. But because the references are incidental (like that to "Michael" in "The Rats Outside Me") the device does not really work; we don't get to know any of the characters]. Scott and the author in "Certain Talents" are playing “Fish-touching, the oiled-leaf / feel of a tail fin across fingers" -- a wonderfully sensual phrase:

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.

These are haunting lines, but are they laudatory or ironic? On the one hand, the poem suggests Scott is to be respected for “winning” at “fish-touching”, that his machismo is a virtue. On the other hand, that Scott "can make/ of his mind a fish tail” that slips into "darkness" suggests the banal, if not brutal, ignorance of macho pretensions. But then, the reduction of the distance between subject and object -- the sublimation of the ego and recreation of, or sensitivity to the consciousness of an Other (whatever it, he or she may be) -- is often considered a poetic triumph. And the final phrase of this poem -- Scott “can make / of his mind a fish tail slipping off / into coppery darkness” -- is most convincing and attractive. The various implications in the final stanza, then, suggest an ambivalent and ambiguous -- if not unclear -- view of art, one sustained elsewhere in the book.

Take the similarly ambiguous poem, “Crow”. Given Ted Hughes’ Crow and Edgar Allen Poe’s raven (not to mention paintings by Van Gogh and Colville), it is difficult not to immediately interpret the crow as representing the artist/poet. Degen's first stanza reads:

Crows, you notice,
prefer the very tops of trees;
being claustrophobic, a cage
of branches at mid-trunk
would set them panicking.

Here we have the image of the artist searching out “the very tops of trees” - that elevated, omniscient, prophetic position (though the non grammaticality of the sentence -- the dangling modifier -- somewhat obscures the line). In the next stanza the poet figure is “enraptured by shiny things” -- objects of beauty -- which, to the average person, are a waste of time.

Born time-wasters, they’re
the TV watchers of nature,
enraptured by shiny things.
They perch beside highways,
at the very tops of trees, and
gaze liquidly at the big
river of shiny things...

The crows, again ironically like the clichés about the poet, are “[p]roud of their own mystery”, “their shape / against the sky / is most symbolic of ... death, intelligence ... laughter”. Crows “speak / of their own arrivals, disappearing / just when you settle on / what that pure / throat noise might mean.” “You”, here, would seem to reflect the poet’s duty: deciding the significance of a unique sound/thing. On the other hand, is it not a mysterious “pure throat noise” which the poet strives to produce? And “you” is then a reader? This ironic view of the poet and poetry makes Degen’s collection more appealing than the earnestness and self-importance in the work of many young poets.

For poetry is fundamentally ironic, in one sense: it is both true and fictional; poems are, like Degen's description of the town of Fergus, “things / that have achieved / a state of being there / and not being there / at once”. Thus the muse-figures in Killing Things seem determined to escape, at all costs, the words of the poet. “Shimmer and Disappear” describes “the girl who / drifts in and out / of my city”. The brief portrait of this girl in three cities ends with the stanza:

and at the western
in the unnameable Southwest,
you run out
into the desert, hoping
the heat will flatten you
to nothing.

A similarly mysterious female figure, explicitly associated with poetry, is found in “Blanca on Long Island”, which ends much the same way:

In winter, the town empties
of film stars, and reads
her small form, walking,
a poem

The town can expect more of such forms from John Degen as his craft deepens, and he turns back, perhaps, instead of away from a city -- as he states in "My Island" -- answering the questions posed by that poem ("Where is your wife? / Where are your children?"), and seeing the city as itself, instead of "like a photo of itself". Degen's last line in Killing Things is, after all, "I'm ready now."

Geoffrey Cook is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







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