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