When I was 16, someone gave me a copy of an anthology of Canadian love poems called Love Where the Nights Are Long. In it were poems by Alden Nowlan, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Avison — and P.K. Page. This slim book made a deep impression on me. There were poems in it that mentioned snow, or Montréal, and the voices were characterized by a light-handed, witty but passionate sensibility that stood outside the margins of the colonial literature that I had been taught in school. In 1962, it was news to me that a Canadian woman could aspire to be a published poet.
The poem by Page in the collection was “Adolescence.” Here is the beginning of it:
In love they wore themselves in a green embrace.
A silken rain fell through the spring upon them.
In the park she fed the swans and he
whittled nervously with his strange hands.
And white was mixed with all their colours
as if they drew it from the flowering trees.
At night his two finger whistle brought her down
the waterfall stairs to his shy smile
which, like an eddy, turned her round and round
lazily and slowly so her will
was nowhere — as in dreams things are and aren't.
P.K. Page went on to a marvelously prolific career as both a writer and a painter (some of her paintings hang in the National Gallery of Canada). She wrote poetry all her life, publishing her last collection at the age of 92, but she also wrote novels, essays, nonfiction and children’s books. With her diplomat husband Arthur Irwin — the editor of Maclean’s magazine for a time as well — she spent two years living in Brazil, which influenced her creative work. (“I paint like a maniac and go through the most ghastly and torturing times,” she wrote.) Her paintings and poetry have a Latin-tinged vibrancy, colour and sensuality that is unusual in Canadian literature. Although she wrote like a visual artist, exploring and animating the act of perception, she considered herself above all a fan of ideas, driven by ideas; her poetry does have something in common with the work of John Donne and the 17th century metaphysical poets. There is a fine balance of masculine reason and reflection and feminine awareness in her work. (Page was an ardent reader and admirer of Jung.)
P.K. Page was by any measure a successful Canadian poet — a phrase that comes with a bracing dose of anonymity. But even inside the firmament of poetic stardom, she hasn’t achieved the reputation of more flamboyant personalities such as poets Irving Layton or Al Purdy. Her work is quieter and sometimes more genteel, but also gutsy and solid. Her creative energies were also absorbed by domestic life with an older, more placid and hardworking husband, as well as a long and doomed affair with a married man, the Montréal-based poet F.R. Scott. That loss stung until the end of her life. “I never got over being rejected as I was,” she once said.
There was a bit of Elizabeth Smart to P.K. Page (the two met at a party, and sparks flew); a broken heart and familial obligations interrupted but never undermined her creative goals. Which is not unusual for a poet.
Page has long been admired within the literary community. Poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje was a friend of Page’s and a huge admirer of her nonfiction work. (Brazilian Journal may have influenced his own singular nonfiction work, Running in the Family.) His description of her work is astute: “She’s a very important touchstone for writers. She’s raucous and funny in person but her head is another reality. She has a very odd-angled vision of the world, tragic and comic, the imagined world lying side by side with the real.”
That sensual coupling of the visceral and the invented is key. She is a world-maker in her lines, conjuring images and textures. But she also constructs an intellectual architecture around those images. Page was a fan of Doris Lessing’s concept-driven fiction — “I am really an ideas person,” she once wrote, “I need ideas.”
Margaret Atwood was an early admirer and great supporter of the poet as well. When she first came upon Page’s poems as a student at Victoria College in the 1950s, some of them, she said, “blew the top of my head off.” At the time, Atwood was reading Jay Macpherson, Margaret Avison and P.K. Page. “It was comforting to read these writers… It was… like a laying on of hands, a feeling that you could do it because, look, it could be done.”
Page was also a lifelong student of Sufism, deeply interested in the expansion of consciousness that had begun to engage intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s. Although she was an alert poet of “what is,” she was always flirting with what could be — a visionary poet keen to first note and then dissolve the boundaries between the ordinary and the transcendent.
Sandra Djwa’s new biography restores Page to her rightful place. A Journey with No Maps is a richly anchored in Djwa’s deep knowledge of the Canadian literary landscape of the last century. It presents Page as a complex, appealing, supremely gifted and creative woman. Djwa received the Governor General’s Literary Award for her book, which may help P.K. Page find the new readers and admirers she deserves.