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The Wandering Page

By (June 1, 2013) No Comment

Journey with No Maps: A Life of P. K. Page

By Sandra Djwa
McGill-Queens University Press, 2012

1P. K. Page has recently been hailed as “The most important Canadian author you probably never heard of.” I can neither confirm nor deny the truth of this supposed obscurity – although I imagine that however true it is in Canada, it is even more so beyond its borders. P. K. Page was the author of more than thirty books of prose and poetry and a prolific painter under the name P. K. Irwin (her married name); Sandra Djwa’s impressive biography seeks to restore her to prominence.

I first encountered Page in an undergraduate English class: we read her poem “Photos of a Salt Mine,” and I memorized my favourite lines. The poem describes, in an exhilarating sequence of images, a series of photographs of a salt mine. The lines my undergraduate self committed to memory fell early in the poem, when the speaker sees the loose salt on the ground and imagines that the workers

might make angels in its drifts,
as children do in snow,
lovers in sheets,
lie down and leave imprinted where they lay
a feathered creature holier than they.

The beautifully-crafted language and the fluidly shifting imagery struck me immediately. While I was discovering with delight this unknown-to-me Canadian poet, on the opposite coast of Canada Djwa was conducting copious interviews with her, and these form the basis for the absorbing and detailed account of Page’s life. This account is enriched throughout by liberal quotation from Page’s poetry and prose, which is vivid, articulate, replete with imagery, and frequently surreal: if you aren’t lucky enough already to be familiar with her work, you will be by the end of the book.

For all of her professional life, Page was an important member of the Canadian literary scene, not least so as a mentor for younger Canadian authors. Michael Ondaatje, poet and author of The English Patient, has called her “a very important touchstone for writers.” For Margaret Atwood, Page’s work was an early source of inspiration and encouragement to her as a Canadian woman trying to become a writer; when Atwood first read Page’s poetry, it “blew the top of [her] head off.” She was an active early member of the Canadian League of Poets, and instrumental to the early days of the Canada Council for the Arts, which gives financial support to Canadian artists. Near the end of her life, she had a brush with international fame when the United Nations chose her poem “Planet Earth” to be part of an international reading series. The poem calls for a renewed love and care for the planet, beginning,

It has to be loved the way a laundress loves her linens,
the way she moves her hands caressing the fine muslins
knowing their warp and woof,
like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising.

2Within Canada, she is best known for her work in Montreal in the 1940s. There, she was an important member of the (mostly male) editorial group for the Canadian little magazine Preview, which was a key player in the development of Canadian modernism – and the very idea of Canadian literature. “The Stenographers,” which dates from that period, is her most frequently reprinted work. Through chilling imagery, it depicts the deadening hardship of the life of the female office worker:

After the brief bivouac of Sunday,
their eyes, in the forced march of Monday to Saturday,
hoist the white flag, flutter in the snowstorm of paper …

Their beds are their oceans – salt water of weeping
the waves that they know – the tide before sleep;
and fighting to drown the assemble their sheep
in columns and watch them leap desks for their fences
and stare at them with their own mirror-worn faces.

Written during World War II, this poem speaks to the condition of modern womanhood in language recalling the violence of the battlefield. One of her eeriest images, from another poem from the same era, describes a group of typists:

Deep in their hands, like pianists,
all longing gropes and moves, is trapped
behind the tensile gloves of skin.

Through her poetry, Page explored what it meant to be a woman and a writer in the modern world, whether as an office worker in the 1940s or as a public figure facing global ecological destruction in the 1990s.

To Djwa, Page is successively Patty, Pat, and finally P. K., as she follows her from childhood to old age, and from experimental and uncertain literary beginnings to artistic maturity. The most noteworthy incidents in Page’s life both date from the four years she spent living in Montreal in her late 20s: she worked on Preview, producing her brilliant early verse, and she had an affair with the married F. R. Scott, a fellow member of the Preview group and a published poet. If nothing else, Djwa’s biography draws attention to the fantastic breadth of a life usually conceived just that narrowly.

In the essay referred to in the title of Djwa’s book, Page proclaims, “I am a traveller. I have a destination but no maps.” The journey she is describing is a psychic one, but a life lived physically as widely as Page’s has more than metaphoric claims to be a journey. Page’s parents, Lionel Page and Rose Whitehouse, themselves both British, met in Red Deer, Alberta, before the First World War. They married in 1915 in England while Lionel was on leave from the army, and Page was born in England the following year. After the war the Pages returned to Canada, where Lionel’s military postings moved them across the country; she eventually lived in almost every major city in England. Page also spent a year living with a sister of her mother’s in London, and would later accompany her husband, Arthur Irwin, on diplomatic postings in Australia, Brazil, and Mexico before settling in Victoria, British Columbia.

It is a privilege of great writers that their childhoods are preserved as somehow more vivid and more vital than the run-of-the-mill, and Page’s case is no exception. As a child, Page lived in numerous places across the Canadian prairies, with brief interludes spent with her mother’s family in Britain, and these landscapes and her experiences in them are animated through Djwa’s quotations from their later poetic and fictional incarnations. From a late autobiographical poem, “The First Part,” we get a childish vision of a horse drawn from her experiences at military summer training camps:

Horse. High as a house. Smooth as a nut.
… Its velvet lips
lifted the accurate white sugar lump
exactly from my flat extended palm.
And crunch. The curving yellowish ivory teeth.

Page’s seems to have come of age in a home full of love, humour, and art. (Djwa describes a handmade book given to an infant Patty Page by her parents, featuring moral verses written by her father at the Front in World War I and illustrations by her mother; these handmade books, eventually including illustrations by Pat herself, are a recurring feature of her childhood.)

3Djwa’s vision of Page’s youth is persistently rose-coloured, to the point that she sometimes seems to avoid exploring some events and relationships to their fullest. The family’s frequent relocations, Page’s unhappiness at school, and, most notably, Lionel Page’s high expectations for his daughter’s behavior and responsibility within their home were all sources of stress. Djwa describes a near-breakdown when the 11 year-old Patty was put almost entirely in charge of her three year-old brother on a transatlantic ocean voyage with her mother. Later, during her father’s appointment in Saint John, New Brunswick, Pat’s rebellion against attending official receptions and parties was met with what boiled down to an ultimatum:

If you’re living in this house, if I’m feeding you, housing you, clothing you, giving you all the privileges of this household … I think you have to assume responsibility. If you can’t do that, I wouldn’t blame you, but you must go.

Djwa implies that this was accepted unproblematically – “she appreciated the logic of her father’s argument” – and while these incidents and others like them hint at a relationship more complex and more troubled than the loving father and daughter Djwa (or, perhaps more accurately, Page) describes, that possibility is not explored at this point in the biography. It is only much later, when Djwa writes of a telephone conversation she had with Page during the early days of her work on the biography, that this greater complexity retroactively enters into that relationship. Page, Djwa reports, had heard “a paper on ‘brutal fathers and dominated daughters.’ She thought that perhaps this concept was an evolutionary spiral, of which she and her father were a part.” Where exactly Page and her father might have fallen in this evolutionary spiral is not explored, and this revelation raises questions about Page’s life and relationships that the biography does not answer.

As Journey With No Maps progresses from Page’s early twenties, Djwa turns more intently to tracing Page’s growth as a writer and artist, from her first, more traditional forays into poetry, through her discovery of modernism, to the mature verse that coincides with her development as a visual artist. Sandra Martin’s obituary of Page in The Globe and Mail describes her modernist style as developing under the guidance of the (male) poets behind Preview, whom she met in Montreal in 1942. As Djwa’s work shows, Page’s engagement with modernism in fact began much earlier, during the year she spent in England in 1934-35. There, she read Virginia Woolf for the first time – she was particularly taken with The Waves and A Room of One’s Own – and devoured a copy of Harold Munro’s 1929 anthology, Twentieth Century Poetry. Page identified strongly with Katherine Mansfield, whose work she read avidly for years to come, and considered her a contemporary; she was “devastated” to discover, in 1939, that Mansfield had died over a decade earlier. She shared Mansfield’s sense of living “in 4glimpses,” rather than experiencing the world as a unified whole, and admired Mansfield’s descriptions of nature. Djwa sees evidence of Page’s reading of Mansfield in her early pieces of fiction, but the episodic, fragmentary picture of the world and minute depictions of nature have their legacy in her poetry as well.

The ability to trace this new lineage for Page’s work – to find a source for her stylistic innovation in these earlier female modernist writers, and so to present her as a more fully-formed and mature artist by the time she arrived in Montreal (rather than as a naïve young woman prepared to be moulded by the literary men she met there) – is very important to Djwa. She previously wrote a biography of F. R. Scott; in her introduction to Journey With No Maps, she writes of the book as

a public life that alluded briefly to the ‘fellow poet’ he loved [Page]. In the intervening years both Scott and Page have died, expectations for biographical writing have deepened, and there has been a new understanding of the woman’s quest.

Throughout her biography of Page, Djwa is highly conscious that she is writing a woman’s life (as her epigraph, taken from Carolyn Heilbrun’s book of that name, clearly shows), and more specifically of writing about a woman’s life lived when expectations for what that life could and should be were rapidly changing. For Djwa, Page’s “woman’s quest” to find a narrative in which to write her life forms the larger structure of Page’s story, from her early awareness of herself as “a new type – not a suffragette, not a twenties flapper, but a modern woman in embryo” through to her later immersion in Sufism.

5If Page began to think of herself as a modern woman and writer during her year in London, she was able to explore fully both of those identities only once she moved to Montreal in 1941. She had been living with her family in New Brunswick, until her father, impressed by the work she was producing, offered her an allowance of eighty-five dollars a month so that she could live in Montreal and write. There, Page began to think of herself as a professional poet: she became a central figure in the group of up-and-coming Canadian poets behind Preview, and produced the work that became her first book of poetry. Her time in Montreal also set in motion one of the more salacious episodes of her early life: her affair with F. R. Scott.

Given Djwa’s familiarity with Scott’s work, it is not surprising that of all of Page’s relationships, that with him comes across with the most intensity. Their affair lasted for 8 years, from 1942 to 1950, a period which took her from Montreal, briefly to Halifax and Victoria, and finally to Ottawa, where she worked for 4 years for the Canadian National Film Commission. During this time, Page also suffered her first serious loss when her father died in 1944 in Halifax, where he was commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Command. Page’s relationship with Scott is vividly realized 6through Djwa’s quotations from their letters and analysis of their poetry, and as readers we can see her emotional journey, from the tense but happy early days to the increasing misery preceding their break.

Their affair began when he responded sympathetically to “The Stenographers,” which he correctly guessed expressed her unhappiness in her day job in an office, and her first poetic responses were joyful and expansive:

Where the bog ends, there, where the ground lips, lovely
is love, not lonely.
Land is
love, round with it, where the hand is …

By 1944, she is writing poems that register the pain of her situation. In “Element,” the female narrator is a fish, “caught and swung on a line under the sun.” The fishing line is controlled by a man, and the poem ends with the “fish / silently hurt – its mouth alive with metal.” Djwa reads allusions to Scott in work dating until the end of Page’s life. When he was dying in the early 1980s, she went to see him with his wife’s permission. Her poem “Goodbye” movingly records this last meeting, speaking to the enduring connection she felt with her former lover:

We were in a high room
but we were not ourselves …
At liptip or fingertip
or mindtip where we met
we spoke ourselves a language
as singular as Braille
but wordfull and imagefull.

By contrast, the emotional content of Page’s relationship with her husband is curiously absent from the book. This is understandable when Djwa narrates the early stages of their relationship, when Page was still reeling from the end of her affair with Scott (she and Irwin met during the final month of her and Scott’s affair, and were married five months later). Djwa titles her chapter covering Page’s Ottawa years, including the first years of her marriage to Irwin, “Recovery”; while it begins with Page recuperating from the grief and shock of her father’s death, the chapter becomes the story of her recovery from the growing crisis of her affair with Scott, of which Irwin was clearly a crucial part. Their meeting feels rushed (as, admittedly, it was in reality), and Djwa devotes only a page to their married life before Irwin’s diplomatic posting to Australia. Throughout the book, Djwa rarely quotes Page on Irwin, and does not subject their relationship to the same kind of close-reading she devotes to Page and Scott. She reports a few key interventions on Irwin’s part in Page’s creative life – for example, it is he who suggests that she turn to drawing as a creative outlet when they are living in Brazil – but these moments stand out precisely because they appear so rarely.

Particularly striking is her account of Irwin’s assistance while Page edited her Brazilian Journal for publication, which Page was finding a daunting task:

Arthur set up a routine by which they initially worked separately. He would go to his study in the basement and work through twenty pages at a time. When he had finished, he would bring them up to P.K., sitting at the kitchen table. She would then decide whether or not she wanted to accept his editorial changes. Arthur was an accomplished editor, and for P.K. working with her husband was a joy. “It was Arthur who did the real editing on that book. … It was wonderful. It was one of the happiest times of my life in a way, working in that kind of harmony with Arthur.”

This anecdote speaks to a profound and supportive partnership, grounded in trust and respect for each other’s work, which is oddly underplayed, even invisible, in the larger narrative of their marriage.

Page’s early years in Canada seem steeped in a vibrant literary culture. However, the Irwins’ years abroad are evoked more visually. Pat began to draw in a casual way during their tenure in Australia, and became more serious about her art in the years spent in Brazil and Mexico. Djwa speculates that this turn to the visual came about because Page was no longer immersed in the English language: while she wrote about her time in Brazil in letters and in the diary that would become Brazilian Journal, “It was as if she could not write poems because she no longer heard English spoken around her,” and she writes of beginning to live her artistic life “almost entirely through my eye.” Page’s paintings (some of which are reproduced in the book) share the colourful and surreal qualities of her verse. In her diary, she reflected, “I suppose what I really want to write about is drawing – or painting or whatever I’m doing. But I hardly know what to say.” Visually, she was moving towards magical realism: “I want the solemnity of reality, that reality that goes right to the heart, but washed, transformed by the light that never was.” She wanted to incorporate this into her writing as well, but was unsure how to go about it: how, she asked herself, “do you write a Chagall?”

8Throughout Journey With No Maps Djwa gives careful accounts of the deep and lasting relationships with women that informed Page’s growth as a woman and an artist. To name just a few, in her early twenties in New Brunswick, Page befriended Erica Deichmann, a potter who with her husband formed the center of the artistic and literary community that Page sought out. In Montreal, she would begin a lifelong friendship Jori Smith, another painter, of whom she once wrote, “I know of no one who paints more accurately as I would like to write.” These visual artists were important mentors and friends to Page the poet. She found the relationships that nurtured and inspired her drawing and painting in Mexico, when she met the surrealist painters Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. While her friendship with Carrington would later erode, at the time she especially was an invaluable influence: Page shared Carrington’s technical expertise, an area in which she felt her own knowledge was severely lacking, and seems to have started her on the spiritual journey that would end, or at least find its final path, in her later fascination with Sufism.

Before the Irwins return to Canada, Djwa divides her chapters by location, such that each new place of residence becomes a distinct phase of Page’s life. With their move to Victoria, the structure shifts to a chapter per decade, which describe Page’s uncomfortable re-entry to the Canadian literary scene, her increasing involvement in the League of Canadian Poets and the early days of the Canada Council for the Arts, and the friendships she developed with the younger generation of Canadian writes, among them Alice Munro, as well as Atwood, and Ondaatje, all of whom have spoken of her influential role in their careers. She also continued to write and paint, publishing numerous volumes of poetry and regularly showing her artwork.

In addition to this intense professional activity, these years were also a time of concentrated spiritual discovery for Page. It was in Victoria that she devoted herself to the study of Sufism, which came to influence much of her later writing and art. The narrative drive of Djwa’s book diminishes somewhat in these later chapters, as the drama of coming of age, travel, and artistic and emotional upheaval is replaced by the routines and increased professionalization of Page’s later years. These are, inwardly and outwardly, full and productive years for Page, but their narrative arc is less gripping, and the descriptions of pursuit of enlightenment through Sufi thought and practice do not have the same urgency as her earlier artistic grappling.

9In these later years, we also see Djwa herself enter into the narrative as Page’s chosen biographer, a relationship that was by no means smooth. Early in their partnership, Page “became irritated with me when I checked information from our interviews against letters from the period, as biographers must. Why? It was partly that she wanted to tell her own story but also that she developed a transcendental view of her own life – and a pressing desire to have her story told in this form.” In an email exchange with Djwa, Page expressed dissatisfaction with her biographer’s “linear and literal” (vs. her own “non-linear and symbolic”) perspective on her life. And so, as Journey With No Maps comes to a close, it returns implicitly to one of its epigraphs, taken from Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life:

There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.

In these conflicts between Page and Djwa, we see the tension from the woman’s life as she envisions it autobiographically, and the woman’s life as it is written by her biographer. We can be glad that Djwa’s vision of Page’s life has prevailed: Journey With No Maps is a compelling read, enriched throughout by the vivid language and imagery of Page’s own work. The version of Page’s life that she conceived for herself emerges through Djwa’s quotations from her writing, told in poetry or in fiction. And, embedded in Djwa’s narrative are Page’s attempts to find patterns for her life as a female artist, in literature, in spiritual writings, and in the lives of friends and artists she admired, in advance of and while she lived it. Djwa closes the book with a reading of “The End,” a poem Page had written in the 1990s. The poem envisions death, not as something to be feared, but as a resting place where enlightenment may finally be obtained, and so forms a fitting end to Djwa’s account of her journey:

And we shall know, after the flow and ebb,
Things central, absolute and whole.
Brought clear of silt, into the open roads,
Events shall pass like waves, and we shall stay.

Alyssa Mackenzie is studying for her PhD in New York City, where she does research on Virginia Woolf and (when she has time) reads Canadian poetry for fun.