Some Second Growth Poetry (and it’s good!)

By John Harris | September 21, 2015

Fabienne Calvert Filteau, Second Growth (Creekstone Press, 2014. $18).


Fabienne Calvert Filteau is in her late twenties and from an old Central BC family. Her great grandparents settled in Vanderhoof around the turn of the twentieth century. As the family expanded it spread across the country but centred itself on a cabin that the grandparents built in the late twenties near Fort St. James — at Stone’s Bay on Stuart Lake in the shadow of Pope Mountain. Calvert Filteau grew up in Ontario and returned to BC to study Creative Writing at the University of Victoria: her book acknowledges Tim Lilburn and Lorna Crozier, among others, as mentors. She worked her way through school as a tree planter and continues in that occupation, presently residing in Hazleton.

The main subjects of the poems in Second Growth are family members, the wilderness (wild animals, beetle-kill forests etc), and tree planters, in roughly that order of predominance. Mostly Calvert Filteau is an observer more often than a participant, looking outward or into the past, though there are some poems about the immediate experience of sex and about tree planting. She is sensitive as an observer, but without sentimentality, and she can be sardonic. In no way is she cursed, as T. S. Eliot put it, by a ruminative mind. She is aggressive in using the resources of metaphor and conceit to move outside the solipsistic confines of anecdotal, free-verse lyrics into symbolism and myth.

John Donne comes to mind as an example of what I mean by aggressive. For example in “Tonguing” she employs the conceit of self-expression/exploration as a kind of Freudian cunnilingus, the tongue (language, speech) turning inward and exploring (expressing) the inner self: “done with the loud work of making enough room for me / my tongue retracts from today tip first / inside itself moving down the throat’s blue tube . . . .” In the lungs are “hang ups . . . a few small sorrows” (she was a smoker?), in the womb, “slippery unborns” (aborted fetuses?) etc.

The conceit is an ambitious one, hard to sustain, and I found myself anxiously anticipating some too-intimate encounters in the nether parts of the poet’s interior. Yet it was at least interesting to see how she would make the conceit work. The tongue’s most unambiguous thrust is down her legs into the ground, which is, for her, the source of revelation. This direction is anticipated in the quote from Cherrie Moraga that prefaces the book: “land is that physical mass called our bodies.” In the battle of land and sky, realism and idealism, Calvert Filteau is Anteus, taking strength from contact with the ground.

In poetry, an Anteus-like dependence on physical realities can be a disadvantage. Calvert Filteau’s close attention to detail empowers her symbolism, but can also keep it from finding clear meaning. In some poems, the more the metaphors and other figures of speech pile up, the more the subjects blur. One of the back-cover blurbs compares Calvert Filteau to Tim Lilburn. I can see the resemblance, except that Lilburn settled for a shotgun approach to metaphor, while Filteau understands that precision has some importance. It’s the poet’s, not the reader’s, job to thin rows of metaphor so that the strongest can have its effect. Lilburn’s approach conveys nothing but frenetic desperation.

“Dad’s sunken” is a painterly presentation of Calvert Filteau’s father in repose and (maybe) retirement. The reader is drawn in by the exactness of the details, and left to draw conclusions from them, guided only by the common symbol of light as understanding.

“Dad” is settled in his “old green sofa” in the city that “these days / he calls home.” He’s reading books, he’s coughing deeply and steadily, “he’s trying to lose / weight, the comfort of this / good old friend.” Presumably she’s suggesting that given that her father’s weight is his friend, he must like eating. Dad is playing with “the hairs on his graying chest” and thinking about his book “about ancient China” and the fact that “every civilization falls.” He’s insulated and isolated by the soft “lamplight around / him,” in “the way” that he’s insulated and isolated by his memory of a “candle / in a fishing hut” that is “beyond a town he still knows well.”

I’ve read “the way” as “in the same way,” indicating a simile. The lamplight by which the father is meditating the fall of empires puts him in mind of the candlelight in his fishing cabin. This suggests that he himself feels that he has fallen or is diminished. The title, “Dad’s sunken,” which is also the first two words of the poem’s opening stanza, suggests this too. It’s also suggested by the cough, the displacement to the city from the familiar town, the fact that (due to the cough?) he seems to have to stay out of bed for part of the night so his wife can sleep, the fact that he has to lose weight, and the fact that something that had once felt so permanent a part of him (the fishing cabin) has been lost or is at least at a distance.

The poem draws the reader into a situation that would be familiar to many people, sketched in exact details. “Light” becomes an operational symbol — as it often does in poems — of thought and realization. The light in both cases is “soft,” a commonplace metaphor that is not a cliché in this case as it suggests both the exact light from a reading lamp, and her father’s acceptance of the situation.

Poems that work as well (and similarly) include “Arnica” a quiet picture of a male tree planter taking a break, contemplating sending his mother some arnica (fireweed) pressed in a book, but instead peeing (meditatively) on it. Three other poems about her father, “Hotsprings,” “Lilac,” and “The River” are also successful for the same reasons. In them, her father comes across as the quiet, stabilizing—but less important in the sense of problematic and less-identified-with—parent.

I’m taking the poem “Slim” to be about a family member, maybe Calvert Filteau herself, though she doesn’t refer to herself in the third person anywhere else in the book. Some of my difficulties with interpretation may be due to her tendency toward encryption in poems about her family. The description of Slim—minus the engaging smile—fits the back-cover photo of the poet, Also, Slim is engaged in the family pastime of fishing and lives in a cabin:

“She wakes in the washed-out light, her fly rod

caught in the door screen. Tree-bodied

woman, moose-toothed woman, her skin

has thinned to ash. She opens the woodstove to embers

gone blank, her feet brush the floor with their

numb toes lolling, she says, This goddamn century

has turned me to paper. Century

of euphemisms. Her fly rod casts a blazing opus of

curses at the sky. The last light scarlet.”

“Turned me to paper” seems to be a euphemism for hyper-sensitivity — being thin-skinned, like “ash”. The hypersensitivity is to, it seems, situations about which one would hurl curses at the sky. Hopeless situations, one assumes. The general state of the world? Her own limitations? While the details are ambiguous, the portrait is at least interesting — the ambiguity is not of the “arch” sort that characterizes a lot of poetry and only occasionally turns up in Calvert Filteau. Also, being turned to paper could suggest turning to poetry; “Slim” could be a self-portrait.

The dedication of the book is “for Pat, my mother.” “Mackerel Sky” establishes Pat as “the part of me” that the poet “can’t keep . . . hidden.” But, the implication is, tries to keep hidden and so wants to keep hidden. Mother is connected to water in the form of lakes, rivers and clouds, “clouds reflected in water.” The relationship between mother and daughter is fragile in the sense that, when they are together, innocent disturbances of the lake can “quake the clouds into accordion / wisps that bring bad weather.” When they are apart: Our bodies echo / across the lake tonight, the dissonance of loons / who caterwaul a strange harmony / of blood and time and other things / that can’t be spoken between them.” The poems about her mother are, generally, hard to fully understand, perhaps because they characteristically move to the mythological, with physical reality getting lost in the mythologizations. But even the puzzling or unrealized poems add something to the accumulating image of mother and so of the poet.

Brother is portrayed more clearly as, in the author’s youth, an empathetic, imaginative hero and sort of refuge from family life, and in the present a fallen (self-destructive) hero. In saying this I’m connecting “Leaving Now, My Brother,” and “Farm Days” as being about the same person, though the “you” in “Farm Days” could be female, or a cousin. My reading of “Farm Days” involves reading “parents [who] called for help with dishes” as one set of parents, and “younger brothers” as one set of brothers.

In “Farm Days,” a sort of dark but still idyllic “Fern Hill,” brother is pictured in the present as “railing coke from the lid of a ceramic toilet tank / while your empties pile up and the ashtray spews carapaces / of butts and roaches across the floor . . . and the pain in your legs / is the suffering of the world.” He is asked to remember the past, when his sister “lived inside your legs / and you in mine.” That past includes youthful frolics in the barn wherein brother calmed sister’s fears, taught her things etc, and footraces away from house and barn to find rainbow gold in the cornfield.

The focus here on “legs” is perhaps tied to “Tonguing” and more particularly in “Leaving Now, My Brother,” where the brother is described as the “tight-bodied dancer. The brother, like the sister, is an Anteus. I read the description of his action in this poem as suicide by hanging, dancing on the end of a noose. I’m also interpreting “night” as death, “thoughtless thought” as suicide, and the image of letting fall his body as hanging, separated from the ground through death. But maybe he’s just always high and as a result the death is metaphorical, not physical. Here, again, this could be a poem so heavily encoded that it enforces a dangerous degree of interpretation.

Poems about wilderness include another good painterly poem, “Cougar,” but this poem works more through metaphor than “Dad’s sunken” does, presenting impressions of the cougar during the day, at night (in dreams), and during the day again. The cougar becomes a mythological figure. Metaphor is more concentrated in those parts of the poem that describe the cougar’s appearances in dreams and paranoid imaginings.

During the day the cougar is “a streak through the pine fringe.” “She” is also seen literally as “slinking” behind a tree and abandoned car, and “poised” below the kitchen table while she “hovers / in underbrush / beneath your bed.” As night comes on, and the cougar gets closer until she’s actually in the mind, the metaphors become more numerous. “Underbrush” is a euphemism for any dark place. Dreams have a “perimeter” occupied by the cougar, and in dreams you step into the cougar’s “great courage” (courage, like dreams, suddenly a place) with thrill and terror. Should she kill you, your “inner life” (e.g. blood) goes “fountaining” from your jugular.

“Come morning” the cougar is again seen mainly through close details. Her scat / dense and hair-dry / on the fenced lawn, and the “furious scripture” of her claw marks on an arbutus, indicates that she has not gone far away, and is very close to returning and making the dream real. The relative (at first) literalness of the language (except for the metaphor “scripture”) contrasts with the wild figurativeness of the dream.

Towards the end of the poem reality and dream become inseparable and the metaphors come back with “mundane margins of the workaday” — the workaday now also a place. You are afraid even to look up at birds because you will be baring your jugular. The “fleeting / sun-filled murmuration” of the birds, their “million-winged / swooping,” is the sound and feeling of your heart pounding. You realize that your dream could be coming true, that the birds could be responding to the presence of the cougar.

“Clearcut A55901 – 1” is a long, ambitious poem, excellent in its first half, disappointing towards the end where it (literally) drifts off into (white) space presumably meant to mimic the appearance of a clearcut with its small, scraggly bunches of wildlife or seed blocks. The deployment of concrete poetry implies a lack of confidence in the reader’s imagination and breaks the contract between reader and writer, which is different than that between viewer and sketch-artist. The poet is supposed to work magic with words, not space. Also, the book buyer is paying money for pages that have little or nothing on them, and trees are dying in the process.

Other than that, and a conclusion indicating that some postcolonialist poisoning has seeped into the poet during her time studying creative writing at the University of Victoria, the information in the poem is intricate and sometimes surprising in its accuracy. I reviewed a book on this site, Eating Dirt, that covers similar territory, and with less economy of language.

Some of the details in “Clearcut A55901 are highly technical, like the official Forest Service number of the clearcut used in the title. This doesn’t surprise; technical detail is present in many of the poems in the form of botanical names. For those in the know, Clearcut A55901 was the subject of a court case that famously revealed a number of unsettled (perhaps under the present circumstances unsettleable) issues between the Chilcotin Nation and the BC government.

The poem is written in the first person. Filteau is breathlessly at work: “step   step   bend   plant   step bend   plant . . . .” Regularly too it’s “spray spray spray.” She says, “I forget to breathe,” and the lack of punctuation and steady fragmenting of adjectives from nouns and prepositions from verbs and nouns makes the poem sound breathless: “Grass grass grass hectares and hectares of / bunchgrass dry and hardly trees to / hold it natives named this Chilcotin named this People of the Red- / Ochre River now the highway runs the land and the gas station on the Red- / stone reserve sells bottled water and cheap cigarettes along the / road where an odd rancher’ll try to make do through mad cow / scares the decline in beef / sales and harsher winters yet to come.”

The breathlessness stops when Filteau starts to list her daily financial goals — the items she will buy with her wages — and then starts again when the list is finished. The list is a sardonic trivialization of Filteau’s motivations for being a planter — after all, the obvious attractions of being in the wilderness and the satisfaction of a well-tuned body could be produced by jogging through clearcuts or along logging roads. Also, as the poem indicates (the same message is brought home in Eating Dirt), it’s hard to argue that treeplanting really benefits anything or anyone except in terms of the wages paid to planters and the grants to companies. No one knows if the plantations will really grow into healthy forests or whether they are just forestry corporation and government public relations. The fact that highway corridors are the most certain to be planted immediately after logging suggests (as Filteau points out) that the industry’s main intent is cosmetic.

These politics are described in the second part of the poem when the breathless account of planting breaks off, unfinished, in the middle of a sentence. The account of the politics is punctuated normally and the message is sarcastic and critical: High wind in the few trees the fallers left behind, / not to save an eagle’s nest — the forester’s mirror- / practiced nod — but because even a short / -haul load of gnarled lumber arrives / at the mill in Dunkley good for nothing / but grave mulch heaped over skin and eyes / of one more human carcass so forget it / and they do.

“Forgetting upturned and dimpled becomes / a fresh block map.” In other words, the rules about leaving tree patches for wildlife are meaningless as the patches blow down anyway. There’s a facetious (arch) remark that the trees fall because they are lonely, but it is then asserted that they do so because of exposure, “nothing to block the wind.” There’s a facetious remark that all the big trees are removed, leaving the weakest smallest patches of trees for wildlife, because “too many big trees make a person feel small.”

In the third part of the poem the stanzas are short and scattered on the page like, again, wildlife blocks. The stanzas are expressions of loss, dismay and disgust, only partly dismissed at the start of the fourth section by the statement “solitude getting the better / of me.” Now the lines are scattered and split up to indicate disorientation, which ends with an expression of despair, “oh my my my —,” a “yell for salvation” and surrender: “I swallow my own sound / and listen, and know no why / and listen.”

What she listens to in the poem’s fourth part is the sound of the trees in the wildlife patch, which is described as the “three-tree grove the map calls / standing aspen.” She realizes that she hasn’t been listening or looking before; examples of what she should be doing are looking for rust on the underside of leaves and checking for the chalky (south) side of the tree. The “listening, and seeing” part has lines ending (justified) at the right margin, not starting on the left as usual. When the justification shifts again to the right she is back in business, now burying a tampon, which seems to her kind of like putting a “plug” (seedling) into the ground, but not as environmentally helpful (or even indifferent): “I plugged the earth with bloody toxins.”

Back to right margin: “The land is not / the land, it is / this land and it is not / hectare, and it is / not resource, / and it is not / silent, and it is / not mine. She apologizes for not realizing this, and lists the names of trees and plants — a form of looking and listening. Then she lists (left margin) other crimes besides burying the tampon: “I peed on scrub juniper / and named it clump-nothing / and gazed deepward at a gone true love / cycling and cycling / my warm back brain. Peeing on a plant is more likely to do it good than harm, and thinking of an absent lover while planting doesn’t seem like a betrayal of “land.” Other crimes (now right margin) are listed, ending with (left margin), “I saw the tired day and not the tired self.”

In the poem’s final section the poet blames herself for being knowledgeable from school about what’s now called “colonialist” history. That history argues “the inevitability / of progress, industry / for the good of all of us, the true north / strong and free.” Instead of absorbing this knowledge, she should have appreciated (implication: should have been taught) the real history, the history contained in the word “Tsilhoqot’in.”

I stopped taking the poem seriously after the end of the first section with its entirely convincing breath-based description of treeplanting. The rest of the poem takes up the theme of colonizing, “industry,” etc and what Conrad in Heart of Darkness, calls “work,” “civilization” and (ironically) “progress.” Conrad defines progress as “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.” Conrad says that progress is “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” but he accepts its inevitability, as Marx did. Filteau doesn’t, following one of postcolonialism’s originating theorist, Edward Said.

Like Conrad’s heroes, Filteau perceives the moral ambiguity of work and her poems pose complicated questions about human nature, social activity and “progress.” But, like Wordsworth and Said (according to Christopher Hitchens), she opts for simplistic moral judgments. For example, she believes that the attitude of the indigenous peoples of Canada to land and to progress was superior to that of the colonists. Before her, Wordsworth, faced with the failure of the French Revolution and the detritus of progress (enclosures) scattered across England (homeless beggars, poverty-stricken crofters, deserted huts and villages), settled on Rousseau’s “cult of the red man” — the idea that the closer you are to “nature” the better you are, the clearer your thinking and language.

Calvert Filteau might have taken more seriously the quotation from Cherrie Moraga about our bodies being part of the land. With this in mind, how can you say that “this land . . . is not mine”? Moraga’s remark is in line with John Newlove’s assertion in “The Pride,” that the “Indians” are now “in us:” “in this land we / are their people, come / back to life again.” Newlove’s poem is now near-universally condemned as an apology for colonization, but it makes more sense than what Calvert Filteau settles for. Newlove’s poem fits with her Anteus-like dependence on land. Putting it in her terms, Newlove is saying that the aboriginal peoples, through contact with the land, live inside her legs, and she lives inside theirs.

“Becoming Lovers,” one of those poems that focuses on Calvert Filteau as an active rather than contemplative presence (she is sexually engaged in her private life), presents a personal event as involving an Ovidian transformation. “This great myth” (falling into sexual love) is compared to a “cow” (a walrus) coming ashore near the lover’s tent (on Haida Gwaii), shedding its “walrus hide,” and becoming a large “fleet-footed ungulate,” roaring in tight circles around the tent and then fleeing “as quick as it came.” (The poem could be based on a real experience; Haida Gwaii is plagued by small herds of feral cattle that upset the natural balance and disturb tourists.)

The cow’s action suggests the rush of sexual passion, which can indicate love but can also invoke its opposite. Was it just sex? Was someone just using someone? Comically, the man leaves the tent after it’s over, wearing his headlamp, to check the beach for hoofprints and cow or moose shit, “some hard proof” one way or the other. No proof is to be found.

The insecurity of the lovers is indicated by another metamorphosis that happens on the way to the tent, before the arrival of the shape-shifting walrus. This metamorphosis also represents the “shifting shapes / of all our fears,” and is more definitely threatening. A stump seen at night on the way to the beach grows “cat eyes:”

— the way the stump

on the path to the shore

by day a home

of squirrels and polypores

rises by night on root-swift haunches

to stalk the underbrush, hungry to feast

from the soft belly of fear

until dawn, turns those cat eyes

back to muted wood

The poem is peppered with metaphors, some especially vivid, which seems appropriate in the presentation of a magical, mythological event. The tent in the first stanza is, at night, with a light in it, “a pendulous firefly,” the sand the tent is pitched on is “smooth as a conch shell’s ear,” and the night is as orange as the orange in an agate. Three metaphors in five lines. The stump’s metamorphosis is “root swift,” meaning slow, sneaky, not at all like metamorphosis of the walrus. The stump grows “cat eyes.” Fear has a “soft belly” (the submissive position of canines), and wood is said to be “muted,” as if it could have a voice. The scent of the lovers in the tent is “tight,” presumably because they in one another’s arms etc, and the circling motions of the cow are compared to a hurricane, a storm with an eye. The lovers, as the cow’s noise fades, are like “naked chickens” (flesh covered with goosebumps like a plucked bird). The last eight lines are prosaic except that the lover’s headlamp is compared to a beacon, but that is a prosaic metaphor. It might be meant ironically, as beacons aren’t used for active searching but rather allow others to locate the beacon and by contextualizing it, themselves. The headlamp indicates only the location of the lover who is, in terms of finding love, nowhere.

I think the poem works partly through surprise. I like it better than “Sandhill Cranes,” which seems to continue the lovers’ story to the point where the lovers’ insecurity about the actual presence of love, even when they first came together, has been justified. In this poem, the desire to shift shape into a Sandhill crane seems odd.

The man is now needy but non-committal, primarily easing his frustrations, rather than expressing his love, through sex, and leaving the woman feeling used. The situation is presented effectively, and a kind of dialogue of projected feelings: “He says, I am the kind of person pre-disposed to never knowing love / and locks himself / to her, the proverbial vessel / into which he expels repulsion, fear, and she / I am love-less and deserving / takes it, night after night, only ever wanting sleep.”

The “she” can continue (“plant herself”) in this relationship, where his needs are met but not hers, or “fly away” like the sandhill cranes. There’s no urgent transformation taking place at this point in the relationship, but slow evolution of a conscious decision:

she can plant herself

in the leached soil, the toxic earth,

she can bend over

shove her hands in the dirt

take root

and century after century she can bear it, or

this . . . .

The choice between being a tree rooted in toxic soil or being (or simply watching and hearing?) a Sandhill crane seems like a no-brainer. Why is she even considering it? Is there some feminist message here about self-sacrificing women and selfish men? Some incomprehensible urge to adopt the victim position? There’s nothing to indicate what needs in the woman would be met by assuming the “tree” or victim position. She feels “deserving” (of the treatment he gives her) which means she might have some sort of martyr complex, but it’s the darker needs of the man that are detailed, not those of the woman.

Besides, the Sandhill crane, if she is identifying with it as being (anthropomorphically speaking) a veritable model in human terms of a healthy marital relationship, is not exactly a symbol of freedom or escape. That she sees it as such suggests that the woman doesn’t really take the man’s presentation in a totally negative way. If she is willing to be victimized by the man because she sees the possibility of a Sandhill crane-sort of relationship, if this is the point of the poem, we need to know more about her attitude. Likely her feeling of being victimized comes and goes and is taken by her as purely subjective — but this needs to be articulated. But it’s also possible that playing the victim is felt to be tactically useful in acquiring, like the cranes, a happy relationship.

The woman’s meditation occurs as she plants trees. She’s led into it by the osprey-like motions of the sun. The analogy of sun and bird seems a bit far-fetched, but the osprey’s activities (hunting) a contrast to those of the crane (migrating and singing), are presented in the same captivating detail. The osprey and the sun “hiss” through the clearcut. The sun (driving the air currents?) causes the hair (the scrub brush) on the back of the clearcut to “bristle.” The osprey drops from the “thermals” into a patch of Labrador tea, causing the rust on the undersides of the leaves to puff up, “a dust cloud.”

Similarly the cranes, whatever they represent to the woman, are seen (their song especially is described) in wonderful detail: “rattled gurgle of birdsong / . . . flaming scarlet crests / and breasts big as deer.” They fly low over the clearcut: “slowing / they beat the launching wind, sing the ancient grind / of valley boulders chiming . . . .

The blurbs on the back of Second Growth are on the whole accurate. They emphasize Calvert Filteau’s “zeal” and “energy”: this is fast-moving, ambitious poetry. It applies a wide range of technique to difficult, sometimes personal issues. It generally avoids facile resolutions, though there is an occasional descent into the post-colonial and politically correct. Among the younger poets of northern BC, I see her up there with the sardonic rebels, Donna Kane and Greg Lainsbury, both of whom claim some derivation from that embittered and prescient loner, Barry McKinnon. Poets are trained by the landscapes they live in as well as those who mentor them.

 September 22, 2015  4762 Words


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