Introduction or preface
Randall Jarrell famously declared, ‘‘A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’’ Lists of P. K. Page’s lightning strikes will differ from reader to reader -- mine would include, at the very least, ‘‘After Rain,’’ ‘‘Another Space,’’ ‘‘Arras,’’ ‘‘Beside You,’’ ‘‘Cry Ararat!,’’ ‘‘Deaf Mute in the Pear Tree,’’ ‘‘Evening Dance of the Grey Flies,’’ ‘‘Macumba: Brazil,’’ ‘‘My Chosen Landscape,’’ ‘‘The New Bicycle,’’ ‘‘Planet Earth,’’ ‘‘Presences,’’ ‘‘Stefan,’’ ‘‘The Stenographers,’’ ‘‘Photos of a Salt Mine,’’ ‘‘Stories of Snow’’ -- but most readers would agree that few, if any, Canadian poets have been ‘‘struck by lightning’’ more often than P. K. Page.
Page herself sometimes adopted Jarrell’s metaphor:
Hurl your giant thunderbolt that on my heart
falls gently as a feather, falls and fills
each crease and cranny of me...
but more frequently it is another metaphor that comes to her mind, the one which concludes the quatrain quoted above:
-- a chinook:
sweet water, head to foot.
The chinook, the warm western wind whose sudden magical midwinter appearances Page often recalled from the Calgary of her childhood, is her muse. Like the ‘‘gentle breeze’’ which Wordsworth invokes at the opening of his autobiographical Prelude, the chinook opens Page’s own poetic autobiography, Hand Luggage (9):
Calgary. The twenties. Cold and the sweet
melt of chinooks. A musical weather.
World rippling and running. World
watery with flutes. And woodwinds.
The wonder of water in that icy world.
The magic of melt.
The spirit of the chinook returns at the end of Hand Luggage in the form of a recurrent dream: ‘‘I dream of it often ... the space where discreteness dissolves’’ (92). And in ‘‘Another Space,’’ a poem which literally began as a dream, she elaborates:
It is as if a glass partition melts --
or something I had always thought was glass --
some pane that halved my heart
is proved, in its melting, ice.
The invocation of the chinook in Hand Luggage is immediately followed by Page’s description of herself as a ‘‘borderland being.’’ Throughout her career, both as a poet and as a visual artist, Page remains fascinated with borders and their dissolution: the ‘‘fluidity’’ of her poetry in which ‘‘the self dissolves’’ (Sullivan 41-42) has its counterpart in the ‘‘boundary play’’ of her visual art in which ‘‘something shifts or merges’’ (Godard 65). Sometimes this dissolving and merging is explicitly linked with the chinook, as in the prose poem of that name, where the ‘‘armour [of winter is] unlocked in a flash, its white flesh melted.’’ But even when the chinook is not explicitly named, the power of dissolution which it represents is repeatedly invoked. We sense this power when ‘‘tightly locked [ice] dissolves, flows free’’ (‘‘This Cold Man’’); or ‘‘glassy snow...melt[s]’’ (‘‘Out Here: Flowering’’); or ‘‘dichotomy’’ becomes ‘‘indivisible’’ (‘‘Age of Ice’’); or ‘‘rigidity’’ that ‘‘separates, divides’’ becomes ‘‘molten’’ (‘‘This Frieze of Birds’’); or ‘‘longitude that divides [and] that separates...dissolves’’ (‘‘If It were You’’); or ‘‘walls dissolve’’ (‘‘The Condemned’’); or ‘‘stiff[ness]...dissolve[s and] overflows’’ (‘‘Probationer’’); or ‘‘visions...thaw[...] and flow[...]’’ ([Riel], P. K. Page fonds, 3-72:12A). For Page ‘‘the magic of melt’’ is so intimately connected with inspiration and creation that when she bids farewell to poetry, in what is probably the last poem she wrote before lapsing into her long mid-career silence, the chinook seems to be recalled by its absence:
Could I Write a Poem Now?
Or am I so
sold to the devil
that a hard frost locks
those lovely waters?
The hard frost that locked the lovely waters of Page’s poetry in Brazil was to last until the very end of her years in Mexico when, in the central chinook moment of her career, with ‘‘a sudden ... bouleversement’’ (‘‘Questions and Images’’ 41) ‘‘solid walls dissolved’’ (‘‘Questions and Images’’ 40) and poetry soon began to flow again, as it would for the rest of her life.
The period of silence which ‘‘Could I Write a Poem Now?’’ portends is the pivot around which Page’s career turns. The poet who falls silent in Brazil and the one who finds her voice again in Mexico both created work of the highest order, but in vision and language the poetry of the earlier and of the later Page could hardly be more different. All readers of Page recognize this difference, but to explain its origin is a different matter.
The most illuminating accounts of the poetry of the early Page are provided by Brian Trehearne and Dean Irvine. Although their perspectives differ, both see Page’s poetry of the forties and fifties as the product of a tension between opposing pairs of principles variously defined: personality and impersonality, interiority and exteriority, subjectivity and objectivity, multiplicity and wholeness. Trehearne emphasizes ‘‘the aesthetic dimension of her crisis’’ (95). In his account Page is struggling with the legacy of the ‘‘accumulative aesthetics’’ (92) of imagism, attempting to arrive at a ‘‘new attitude to the relation between the individual image and the whole poem’’ (64). Irvine presents a gendered reading in which Page’s struggle is between an ‘‘objectivist, impersonalist ... masculinist modernism’’ dominant in the Montreal milieu of the forties where she first found her voice, and a ‘‘subjectivist, personalist ... gender-conscious poetics’’ (130-31). And both convincingly argue that the tensions they identify in such masterful poems as ‘‘The Stenographers,’’ ‘‘Photos of a Salt Mine,’’ ‘‘Stories of Snow,’’ ‘‘The Permanent Tourists,’’ ‘‘Arras,’’ ‘‘Giovanni and the Indians’’ and, especially, ‘‘After Rain,’’ eventually led to an impasse.
It is in ‘‘After Rain’’ that this impasse is most powerfully dramatized. The speaker, clearly Page herself, describes the ‘‘ruin’’ of her garden in a downpour, its ‘‘geometry awash’’ in a kind of destructive version of the ‘‘magic of melt’’ of the chinook. Paradoxically, she delights in this scene of destruction, which stimulates her imagination and unleashes a flood of vivid images. But her delight soon turns to ‘‘shame’’ for reasons both of ethics and esthetics. Her self-indulgent delight in the scene has blinded her to the ‘‘ache’’ of the ‘‘doleful’’ gardener whose work has been destroyed; and her similarly self-indulgent delight in evoking image after image -- her ‘‘whimsy’’ -- has prevented her from creating a satisfying artistic whole. The poem ends with a prayer which clearly reflects her sense of being torn between the two warring aspects of her nature, the sensuousness that responds with great immediacy to the multiplicity and richness of art and nature, and the rationality that yearns for the ‘‘meaning’’ provided by a larger ‘‘whole’’:
... keep my heart a size
larger than seeing, unseduced by each
bright glimpse of beauty striking like a bell,
so that the whole may toll,
its meaning shine
clear of the myriad images that still --
do what I will -- encumber its pure line.
Although ‘‘After Rain,’’ provides us with a powerful dramatization of the tension between the opposing impulses at the heart of Page’s poetry of the forties and fifties, in the end it leaves us ‘‘no closer to the causes of Page’s middle silence,’’ to an understanding of why it is that ‘‘pairs cannot be reconciled’’ (Trehearne 105, 45). The key to the ‘‘enigma’’ of ‘‘unsynthesized dialectical pairs’’ (Irvine 131,132) is provided, in retrospect, by Page herself.
Somewhere in between the two, a third
wishes to speak, cannot make itself heard,
stands unmoving, mute, invisible,
a bolt of lightning in its naked hand.
-- P. K. Page, ‘‘The Selves’’
In Hand Luggage, during a discussion of the destructive polarities of Canadian politics, Page recommends a ‘‘Triclopian view’’ of the world:
If only we could
add an eye we would have a Triclopian view:
... both of them, plus,
... the two -- with a third.
Seeing Page’s career in the forties and fifties in terms of a conflict between pairs of opposites will take us only so far. It is only when we adopt a ‘‘Triclopian view’’ and see the ‘‘two -- with a third’’ that we can hope to grasp the larger pattern of Page’s loss of her poetic voice and its recovery during the period spanning her years in Brazil and Mexico. Page leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of the ‘‘third,’’ when she describes the transformative moment that marks the end of her period of silence.
At the conclusion of the Mexico section of Hand Luggage, Page says of the years of fruitless struggle leading up to this moment:
... I had searched
since birth, I suspect, via love, via art,
via politics even -- poor idiot me! --
a magnet in search of its mother lode, or
a chick for its hen? Incorrect, for a chick
outgrows its necessity, mine had increased.
I was starving, despairing, ...
... onto my plate
came, in typescript, my first introduction to Shah.
Something in me was stilled. Some thirst was assuaged.
Shah is the Sufi master, Idries Shah, Page’s guide through the world of the spirit, which was to be the still centre of her poetry in the years to come. Inspired by the Sufi vision ‘‘of achieving a third perspective that emerges from an original dichotomy’’ (Stilles 203), Page is able complement the opposing ‘‘two’’ of her earlier work -- the sensual and the rational -- with a ‘‘third’’ -- the spiritual -- which subsumes and fulfils them. Page’s poetry thereafter abounds in visions of a oneness achieved through
triangulation [which] enmesh[es]
three worlds ...
in timeless Time
(‘‘Flowers of the Upper Air’’)
Although visionary experiences of this sort find no expression in Page’s poetry of the forties and fifties, it would be wrong to assume that they were entirely unknown to her when she first came to read Shah. As she tells us in ‘‘Alphabetical’’ (and elsewhere, most notably in ‘‘The First Part’’) such experiences were part of her childhood:
As a child I was wakened
taken from my tent
to look at the velvet
vastness of the night.
. . . . .
barefoot on the prairie
I looked deeper and deeper in.
Eternity rushed past.
But as time went on, she learned to
turn consciousness off
... no longer able to bear
so starry a totality
so vast a space ...
The very me of me gone ...
The extent to which Page struggled to ‘‘turn consciousness off’’ can be seen in her most important work preceding her poetry of the forties, The Sun and the Moon, which she completed in 1940. At the core of this novella is the theme of the ‘‘sweet ecstasy’’ of ‘‘breath-taking communion’’ (7) repeatedly experienced by its protagonist Kristin. Kristin has the gift of ‘‘empathy’’ (107) which enables her to enter into the being of whatever she perceives. But, to her horror, she learns that in entering into the being of Carl, the man she loves, she drains him, succubus-like, of his vitality. When Kirstin imagines this process, she envisions ‘‘the slide of a glass in a phial which held two acids apart ... [being] destroyed by the acids and ultimately [bringing] them together to react’’ (119) -- a kind of terrible parody of the melting of the glass partition in ‘‘Another Space.’’ Her solution is to transfer her spirit into a tree and thus save Carl from being absorbed into the ‘‘undivided mind.’’ The vision of spiritual wholeness, which Page would eventually come to celebrate, is here seen as a source of ‘‘terror’’ (119). At this stage of her life, Page has no way of making sense of it and there is nothing in her Canadian social or cultural milieu to help her.
Page’s poetry of the forties and fifties, then, is marked not only by very real tensions between the two poles of the sensuous and the rational, but by the continued denial of the ‘‘third’’ -- the spiritual. It is when this denial becomes impossible to sustain (‘‘I was starving’’) that Page falls silent; it is only when her spiritual hunger is finally ‘‘assuaged’’ that her silence can be overcome.
nel mezzo del camin
-- Dante, Divine Comedy
The deeply moving drama of loss and recovery which reaches its dénouement at the precise chronological midpoint of Page’s life, takes place in three countries, each of which has its unique role to play in the evolution of her ‘‘Triclopian view.’’ Nothing had prepared Page for the life of an ambassador’s wife that she was to embark on with her husband, Arthur Irwin; but, in retrospect, there seems to be an inevitability about her three-part physical and spiritual journey over these years.
Australia, the first stage of this journey, ‘‘fascinated and appalled’’ Page, as a kind of distorted mirror in which she could view the Canada she had left behind. It was primarily the rational, critical side of Page’s nature that Australia engaged, as she grappled with her place in a deeply conformist and self-satisfied society of ‘‘ordinary people [who] understand ordinary things’’ (‘‘Social Note’’). It is in Australia that she produced some of her most intellectually challenging works -- poems such as ‘‘Arras,’’ and ‘‘After Rain’’ -- in which she analyzes with great precision the increasing, and increasingly disturbing, gap between her art and the world around her.
It was in Brazil that poetry finally became impossible for Page. The mostly fragmentary poems which survive from the period immediately leading up this crisis present us with the picture of a poet at a loss, unsure of what she has to say or how to say it:
There should be more to say but I become
when confronted -- dumb --
like a bird in a cage, can’t sing on request
(‘‘There Should be More to Say,’’ P. K. Page fonds, 27-5: 11)
In a curious reversal of the ‘‘magic of melt’’ of wintry Calgary’s chinook, tropical Brazil is imaged as ‘‘green warm water dense / as a cube of green glass’’ (‘‘The Heat and Weight of It,’’ 27-5: 8) in which Page feels trapped and isolated. In another related image of isolation and entrapment, she sees the ‘‘whole green world’’ of Brazil as a ‘‘chrysoprase,’’ a kind of precious green stone, ‘‘crystal and spherical / silent as the hole in a head within.’’ At a loss for words, she sees only one possibility open to her: ‘‘Paint it’’ (‘‘This Whole Green World,’’ 27-5: 4).
In Brazil, the poet P. K. Page becomes the painter P. K. Irwin, and, for a time, finds in this new art a release for the creative impulse that had been denied her as a poet. As we have seen, Trehearne identifies the central challenge which Page faced in the forties and fifties as ‘‘the integration within a coherent ‘whole’’’ of an ‘‘accumulation of brief images’’ (77, 61). In Brazil, this challenge continues to vex her as a poet: ‘‘It is not enough to describe it / who wants a list?’’ (‘‘There Should Be More to Say,’’ 27-5: 11) -- but not as a painter. Freed of the demands of the intellect for a larger pattern of order and meaning, she begins to record, in drawing after drawing and in painting after painting, the images that ‘‘pelt’’ her from every direction (‘‘Questions and Images’’ 35). Page’s joyous acceptance of the sensuous side of her nature is reflected in her diaries of the time. Compared to the Australian diaries, in the diaries of this period -- and even more so in the Brazilian Journal based on them -- there is little of the pungent social commentary that previously had so engaged her critical intellect.
There can be no doubt of the continuing, lifelong importance of the Brazilian years to Page. Cullen, her alter ego whose life journey she traced in a series of poems over a period of seventy years, ends his journey with a memory of Brazil. And, in her own life journey, the last work that Page completed was a version of a Brazilian fable. But although it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Brazilian years, they were a passing phase. By the end of her time in Brazil, there is evidence both in her paintings, which are becoming more complex and disciplined, and in her diaries, that what Brazil has given her -- permission to acknowledge and celebrate the sensuous aspect of her nature -- is not enough. She writes ‘‘there is a side of me which will always react to this place, a sensuous side ... which loves all that loves the sun. ... but it is as if one dimension here is missing--the third, I think‘‘ (P. K. Page fonds, 113-16). Though she did not know it at the time, ‘‘the third’’ was beckoning from Mexico.
‘‘Black, black, black is the colour of a Mexican night’’ begins Page’s Mexican diaries (133-26) establishing from the start that Mexico would be the site of ‘‘the dark night of [her] soul’’ (Hand Luggage 81). The Mexican diaries are the record of an unbroken, and increasingly frantic, search for the spiritual sustenance that the sensuous richness of Brazil had been unable to offer her. Often on the edge of despair, Page seeks guidance from a wide variety of sources, including Jung, St. John of the Cross, C. S. Lewis, Gurdjieff, Subud (a spiritual movement originating in Indonesia), Zen, the ‘‘perennial philosophy,’’ and even -- to the horror of Arthur -- Timothy Leary, who was visiting Mexico at the time. Deeply affected by the half-mad surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, during this period Page created her greatest paintings: for example, ‘‘Cosmos’’ (‘‘When Leonora saw it she said ‘I am having a heart attack’’’), or ‘‘And You, What do You Seek?’’ or ‘‘The Garden’’ or ‘‘The Dance.’’ These paintings make the stabs at surrealism in her poetry of the forties and fifties seem like child’s play. Towards the end of the Mexican diaries, Page begins to refer to Idries Shah, but the diaries break off before her actual moment of discovery. It is only in her retrospective comments on this period, and in the poems which were to follow, that the impact of Shah, and of the Sufism to which he introduced her, fully registers.
Shah’s version of Sufism, the central mystical tradition of Islam, is much contested by students of Islam, precisely because Shah denies its Islamic roots. He argues that Sufism is a universal mystical tradition which, for historical reasons, found a home in the Islamic world, but which has no deeper connection with Islam than with any other religious tradition. This, in itself, would have attracted Page, because she had no particular interest in Islam or in any other form of organized religion. More important, though, is the inclusive nature of Sufism. Sufism rejects all forms of dualism in favour of Page’s ‘‘Triclopic view’’ of a unified self consisting of nafs (sensation),qalb (understanding) and ruh (spirit). It is for this reason that the greatest spokesmen of Sufism are not philosophers and theologians, but poets. To the uninitiated, their verses can appear to be purely sensuous celebrations of love, wine, music and the beauties of the natural world; but to the understanding eye they embody spiritual truths. The spiritual discipline of Sufism, which Page took very seriously indeed, sanctioned her celebration of the sensuous world and provided her with an intellectual framework for this celebration.
4. The Ice Age is Over
In ‘‘Cry Ararat!’’, the first of many visionary poems inspired by Page’s discovery of Sufism, the ‘‘geometry awash’’ of ‘‘After Rain’’ is countered by Mount Ararat ‘‘emerging new-washed’’ from the Flood. ‘‘Cry Ararat!’’ is the answer to the prayer in ‘‘After Rain’’ for a vision of ‘‘meaning’’ in ‘‘the whole.’’ ‘‘Something in me was stilled,’’ Page has told us, as a result of her encounter with Shah, and it is stillness which ‘‘Cry Ararat!’’ celebrates. The vision of Mount Ararat is for those who ‘‘do not reach to touch it / or labour to hear,’’ who ‘‘ask for nothing more / than stillness to receive.’’ But to receive this vision of the whole -- ‘‘the I-am animal, / the We-are leaf and flower’’ -- one must be whole oneself, for ‘‘this flora-fauna flotsam, pick and touch, / requires the focus of the total I.’’ In ‘‘After Rain,’’ the divided poet could do nothing to prevent ‘‘the whole’’ from being overwhelmed by ‘‘myriad images.’’ The closing lines of ‘‘Cry Ararat’’ acknowledge this danger -- ‘‘A single leaf can block a mountainside’’ -- but they recognize the opposite possibility as well, that ‘‘all Ararat [can] be conjured by a leaf.’’
To characterize, in a few words, the diverse body of work which follows on ‘‘Cry Ararat’’ would be impossible, but there are certain qualities that stand out. Although relatively few of her poems allude specifically to Sufism (‘‘Leather Jacket’’ is one exception), the series of visionary poems that begin with ‘‘Cry Ararat!’’ (such as ‘‘Another Space,’’ ‘‘Cosmologies,’’ ‘‘The Disguises,’’ ‘‘The End,’’ ‘‘The Flower Bed,’’ ‘‘Invisible Presences Fill the Air,’’ ‘‘Seraphim,’’ ‘‘Spinning’’ and ‘‘The Yellow People in Metamorphosis’’) would be inconceivable without the stillness of spirit which Sufism enabled her to achieve. Even the most intellectually complex of these poems are characterized by the ‘‘pure line’’ Page had prayed for in ‘‘After Rain.’’ They tend to simple diction, free of the verbal knots and intricacies that had characterized most of Page’s earlier verse. And along with these more visionary poems are numerous lyrics (such as ‘‘Gift,’’ ‘‘Beside You,’’ ‘‘Stefan,’’ ‘‘The New Bicycle’’ and ‘‘This Sky’’) of almost haiku-like directness, which register Page’s unending delight in the world around her, a delight which, if anything, increases as she grows older. The simplicity of diction, vividness of imagery and lyric intensity of the later Page have made poems such as ‘‘Planet Earth’’ much beloved beyond the usual circles of readers and students of poetry.
For a sense of the difference between late and early Page, one need only contrast the conclusions of ‘‘Planet Earth’’ and ‘‘Arras’’:
It has to be made bright, the skin of this planet
till it shines in the sun like gold leaf.
Archangels then will attend to its metals
and polish the rods of its rain.
Seraphim will stop singing hosannas
to shower it with blessings and blisses and praises
and, newly in love,
we must draw it and paint it
our pencils and brushes and loving caresses
smoothing the holy surfaces.
I thought their hands might hold me if I spoke.
I dreamed the bite of fingers in my flesh,
their poke smashed by an image, but they stand
as if within a treacle, motionless,
folding slow eyes on nothing. While they stare
another line has trolled the encircling air,
another bird assumes its furled disguise.
Not everyone will agree that ‘‘Planet Earth’’ marks an advance over the much more challenging and cryptic ‘‘Arras.’’ To some, as Trehearne puts it, Page ‘‘may appear to have lowered the stakes of modernist form by adopting a more direct and colloquial imagery’’ (105). But whether we prefer the early Page or the late, it is clear that the ‘‘focus of the total I’’ which first achieves poetic expression in ‘‘Cry Ararat!’’ enables her to embark on a new phase of creativity, which was to continue unabated right up until her death in extreme old age, something that can be said of few other poets in history. One might be tempted to interpret the spiritual ‘‘stillness’’ of the late Page as evidence of an inner retreat from the world, perfectly understandable in one her age; but this would be an error. If anything, the world is more present to her in her later years, for good or for ill, than it has ever been. Many of her later poems (such as ‘‘Address at Simon Fraser’’ and ‘‘Coal and Roses’’) in which she vigorously decries the coarsening of contemporary consumer culture and the degradation of the natural environment, are more socially and politically engaged -- and more convincingly so -- than almost any of her earlier ones. And many (such as ‘‘Pain to His Helper,’’ ‘‘Suffering,’’ ‘‘A Grave Illness’’ and ‘‘Masqueraders’’) record with a sharp and unsparing eye, though usually with self-deprecating wit and humour, the depredations of illness and old age. However, there is a great joy as well in her vivid sense of being in the world, a joy which, until the very end, continues to find its most powerful expression in her lifelong vision of magical renewal, ‘‘the chinooks of [her] childhood’’ (‘‘Green, How Much I Want You Green’’):
Come water, come springtime
come my green lover
with a whistle of grass
to call me to clover.
A key for my lock
small flowers for my crown.
The Ice Age is over,
green moss and green lichen
will paint a green
that opens the road of dawn.