Ken Babstock on John Degen



from the air,
the city cloaks itself in nature,
patchy, black-green forests and

beyond the runway fence,
the blood-brown metal
capsules of abandoned
turbo-props; curious
long-limbed dogs watch us
from a fuselage, bowing
noses to their feet,
eyes shifting to each other and
back again to us touching
down on broken concrete

the black, silk suits
of Italian businessmen
in a film loop, newspaper
pages rattling through
our descending cabin,
Bucharest’s heat bouncing
us reluctantly to earth under
suspicious, peripheral,
canine gaze

— From Animal Life in Bucharest (Pedlar Press, 2000)

Ten years ago, on a one-way flight so cheap I thought it was destined for the black mid-Atlantic, I descended out of thick cloud onto the tarmac at Dublin airport. When the grey cleared from the plane’s glass ovoid, my first glimpse of Ireland appeared as a sodden, moss-green field cradling the rolling eyes of over-dressed sheep. Those sheep seemed at once the Welcoming Committee and the You’re Not Welcome Committee. Sheep are to my memory of Dublin what stray dogs are to John Degen’s Bucharest.

Reluctance opens Degen’s debut collection and sets the tone of the book perfectly. We’re not in for lavish, overwrought tours through a foreign culture made exotic more by a poet’s love of language than by any of that culture’s inherent qualities. This is a visitor who’s accepted his status as visitor and will report back from an inner condition of displacement.

In the first three lines the poem is still more or less in control of the experience, even as it occurs, out the jet’s window. On descent into Bucharest we’re seeing a familiar, easily imagined city — but look how “roads” sits deserted on a line of its own, just before the silence of a stanza break and immediately after “empty,” which enjambs the third line, causing our eye to hover longer than necessary.

Whether the visitor has suddenly recalled a montage of Western news clips featuring dismal, abandoned street scenes from Eastern or Central Europe, or he’s actually viewing emptied roads from above, we’ve been tuned in to his unease and aloneness.

Then, “beyond the runway fence,” we’ve touched down in an alien environment, and in unmistakable image of separation begins a stanza that bumps along on its landing strip of terse, descriptive phrases that can’t quite complete themselves. Say “blood-brown metal/ capsules of abandoned/ turbo-props” a couple of times and see if it doesn’t conjure a memory of the last time you felt a little nauseous. The dogs are the first thing visible after the disused wrecks, and even they are “curious/ long-limbed” with “eyes shifting.”

By the poem’s conclusion, the voice has given over to the sensation that Bucharest is an entity that might not want visitors “in silk suits” dropping in for temporary walkabouts. Its heat only reluctantly allows the plane to land. And those dogs, “suspicious, peripheral,” will keep an eye on this interloper throughout the rest of the book.

We put ourselves in unfamiliar environments to keep our receptiveness intact   and our thoughts arrive jagged, unpunctuated, reminding us that who we think we are has much to do with where we happen to be.

Originally published in the Globe & Mail. You can follow Ken on Twitter: @KBabstock

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