In her debut collection, Second Growth, Canadian Poet Fabinne Calvert Filteau writes of planting trees in northern BC after clearcut, and about being the second growth daughter of a mother who attempted suicide throughout her childhood. She uses both traditional and experimental stanzas throughout the book. As someone who is less comfortable with anything other than left justified stanzas Second Growth as not only gained my admiration, but opened me up to reading more poetry that utilizes white space.
The frontispiece poem, “Prologue” begins “[w]e came for wilderness, bounding trail, rinds of trail/ slumping in in to stream bed, river mud hugging our shoes…” and then goes on to “we came for boombox static, heartless rock, flatulence/ of spun out tires”. The whole poem is one sentence which brings on a rush of things in nature, both the natural beauty and the man-made ugliness, which serves to introduce the reader to the landscape within Calvert Filteau’s collection.
It is the second poem, “Mackerel Sky”, where the mother is first introduced. In the middle of the poem the lines “I’m beginning to fear I can’t keep/ the part of me that is my mother/ hidden” foreshadows the undergrowth of the speakers relationship of her mother, which forms the inner core of the book. The first part of the final poem, “The River”, looks like it is a page and a half and could easily function as a stand alone poem. It begins:
I caught my first fish
at seven years old
in the river where our mother
would try to die
Again the natural world is juxtaposed to the grit of human involvement. She “ate the whole thing,/ licked clean every bone” in the same way she had seen a cat, “lick clean/ the bony remains of mice”. Though the mother’s suicide attempt is not mentioned again in this section of the poem it hangs over the scene in the dark foreshadowing of the fish and also the squirrels blown “to bits with [her neighbor’s] shotgun.” On turning the page the reader sees that the poem is not over, but continues on in another unnumbered section. In this section she is an adult and walking the river with her mutt who “gnaws the stiffened rot/ of a heron’s leg” and brings her owner:
a shampoo bottle,
pubic fuzz of a squirrel’s tail
[and] a stiletto
these details draw a moving negative of the poet’s mother, from shampoo to shoes. This poem goes on to detail her mother’s suicide attempts, and in the last poem the mother is alive, she falls carrying her blind dog in the snow and the “spring runoff flow[s] on.”
The poem “Clearcut A55901-1” is one of my favorites in the collection because it shows the reality of being a tree planter among clearcut. It also wins me over to the ways of experimental form. She writes of DEET, “So I spray my face head back-knee skin and spray and turn up the/ cityscape tape and spray, spray, spray” (21). She writes of her “financial goals” which include “twenty new CDs”, and a “high-tech tent fly”. After listing the goals the poem goes onto:
Step step bend plant step step bend
plant step step bend
trip over a GOALS and stepstep
step bend plant step
Here Calvert Filteau uses an unorthodox writing style to show the gritty reality of being a tree planter. This poem goes on in yet more of a fragmented fashion. In the upper left hand corner of the page,
Stumps like gopher heads
peek through the un-grove,
a colony of question marks
sawed off at the knees
is one of only to stanzas on this page, the other being in the middle of the page. Though reviewer John Harris writes that “meant to mimic the appearance of a clearcut with its small, scraggly bunches of wildlife or seed blocks”, to me these stanzas seem more like that which is seen in a flashlights light at night. These brave little blocks of text stand out. But perhaps Harris is right, the stanza it’s self refers to the images of cut trees.
As someone who leans toward narrative poetry with stanzas stacked like layer cake Calvert Filteau stretched my boundaries of both form and content. I feel like this book is a grapefruit not too sweet, and not easy, the more I squeeze it (or read it), the more sour-sweet juice I will get out of it.
You can find Second Growth here!