Through This Glass Eye
- Jay Ruzesky (Editor)
P.K. Page: A Special Issue. The Malahat Review (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Diane Stiles
Nothing is what it seems.
Through this glass eye
each single thing is other—
to every other thing.
Familiar here is foreign
fresh and fair
("Kaleidoscope," P.K. Page)
P.K. Page is fascinated by kaleidoscopes, and to me the special issue of The Malahat Review celebrating her eightieth birthday seems to look at her life and works as if through what she calls "this magic lens." It shifts and recombines subject matter through various genres including biography, criticism, original works by Page herself, and tributes from other poets.
The first perspective is Page’s own, an account of her time in Australia from a work-in-progress based on her journals; the excerpts offer tantalizing glimpses into the sensibility of the visual artist about to come into her own, as in this description of Alice:
A funny flat little town, with squashed-on-the-head houses surrounded by mandarin and orange trees, now heavy with ripe fruit. And startling against the rusty wet earth, the red flower of the sturt pea as bright as neon. In the distance,but shrouded in mist and so almost colourless, the rocky ranges so brilliantly mauve and blue and red and orange that have been made famous by the watercolours of Namatjiri and his tribal brothers.
A slight twist of what Page calls the "conduit optical" and her life is revealed anew through Sandra Djwa’s "A Biographical Interview," filled with invaluable insights into her poetry. In it Page clarifies, for example, the somewhat confusing content of such uncharacteristically autobiographical poems as "Cullen," "The First Part," and "Melanie’s Nite Book," separating fact from fiction without "explaining away" the effects of these unusual poems. Djwa’s questions are simultaneously succinct and evocative, eliciting a lively account of key events in Page’s artistic development, such as the Preview group’s initial response to her poetry, in Montreal, 1942:
They read my poems in total silence and passed them around to each other and nobody said anything at all. And I wished I was dead—I wished I was back in the Maritimes, not letting anybody know I wrote poetry. I didn’t know why I was there. I was very unhappy. All of a sudden Frank [Scott] slapped his thigh with great good humour and said, "Bones. My God! Here’s a girl who writes about bones—you can’t write about bones anymore."
Other perspectives on Page’s life include Anne McDougall’s "P.K. Irwin, The Painter," an account of her development as a visual artist beginning in the late fifties when she and her husband Arthur Irwin lived in Brazil. In Ann Pollock’s "The White Glass III," drawn from a CBC Ideas interview, Page discusses the psychological and spiritual bases of her poetry:
There is a combination of things that affect what stays with me—a combination of the way the thought is expressed;the actual choice of words; their cadence; and the thing I am trying to . . . feel . . . my way towards. It is the poems that I feel are part of that journey of discovery that interest me the most. (Ellipses in original)
Two memoirs provide additional glimpses into Page’s life and personality: "My Grandmother’s Luggage" by her granddaughter Christine Irwin, and "Memories of Ottawa" by Jay MacPherson.
The criticism of Page’s work includes Don Fisher’s "Eastern Perspectives in the Work of P.K. Page," which focuses on the short story/stage play Unless the Eye Catch Fire, and Sarah Ellis’ "Seeing the Sea: The Fairytales of P.K. Page." Rosemary Sullivan contributes an insightful article on Page’s most recent poetry collection, Hologram, which is a set of four-stanza poems each based on a quatrain from one of Page’s favorite poets, an adaptation of the Spanish glosa. Sullivan notes that most of the glosas are based on lines from male poets, and observes that "Page fills in an absence, offering the authoritative female voice in a dialogue with .. . the great modernists." The glosa based on the last four lines of Leonard Cohen’s "I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries" is "generous" to Cohen, says Sullivan, turning what Sullivan sees as his "irony" into a "pure celebration" of writing. The poem to Eliot, says Sullivan, is "a bold gesture" that "return[s] to his words the joy and enthusiasm that often seemed masked by a certain diffidence in his own work." For Sullivan, the Hologram poems are Page "speak[ing] to the loved dead," "without sentimentality or pretentiousness," in order to reach "her own answers."
The Review contains a selection of original work by Page that reflects the range of her interests, including the fairy tale The Sky Tree, the third in a sequence beginning with A Flask of Sea Water (1989) and The Goat That Flew (1993). Particularly intriguing are the eight pages of reproductions of her drawings and paintings, including the almost primitive-style Beach Scene in felt pen and gouache, the impressionistic Church Interior in oil pastel, and the abstract Dark Globe in gold-leaf and mixed media. Nine new poems indicate the variety of style and content that characterizes her entire oeuvre. In the modified terza rima "The Castle," the structure of a personality is evoked both through the intricate and demanding form, and through a series of physical images: "balance is inner, centred in the keep." "Aurum" is more mystical, apparently describing a woman "gold-leafed" by love: "Sparks spin off from the whirr of her heart./ The shine of her mirror snatches at passing light." "Marmots" is a succinct narrative in which a friend decodes a strange dream, and comes to understand the source of its symbolism. "Hidden Room" is the most personal of the new poems, an expression of one of Page’s recurring images, of a "deeply hidden" inner place, "mine and notmine:"
I am showing it to you
fearful you may not
guess its importance
that you will see only
a lumber room
a child’s bolt hole
Will not know it is a prism
a magic square
the number nine.
Several people who wrote tributes to Page have borrowed from the concept of Hologram, using forms which connect the writer’s words with those of the poet being honoured. Sandy Shreve, John Barton and Elizabeth Brewster composed glosas on Page’s work, while Jan Zwicky and Don McKay wrote three "relays" poetically connecting lines from Page to lines from Neruda, Rilke, and Wallace Stevens, all important influences on her. Donald Winkler, George Johnston, Al Purdy, Marilyn Bowering, and Constance Rooke pay tribute through poetry or prose poetry. Margaret Atwood plays on the "white double O, white nothing nothing" of Page’s "The Snowman" to commemorate her 80th: "here is one/ surprized Ðž topping another, and/ to complete it, an open- mouthed or whistling zero." In "The Great Tree," Michael Ondaatje celebrates the friendship in 14th-century China between a poet calligrapher and a painter who echo "each other’s art:" a "vertical line of Chinese characters" answers the "one branch lifted by wind" in "the best plum-flower painting/ of any period." Ondaatje’s poem is a powerful and moving finale in a volume intended, as editor Jay Ruzesky says, to "honour the source of writing." Through Ruzesky’s kaleidoscopic vision of her life and works, P.K. Page emerges as "a kind of crystal that focuses [creative] energy."
- Worlds Within Worlds by Allan Brown
Books reviewed: A Random Gospel by David Helwig, Too Spare, Too Fierce by Patrick Lane, and Science Lessons by W. H. New
- Of Obscurity and Signposts by Jesse Patrick Ferguson
Books reviewed: Palilalia by Jeffrey Donaldson, Daughters of Men by Brenda Leifso, and aubade by rob mclennan
- Dark Poems for Bedtime by Kathryn Carter
Books reviewed: But If They Do by Bill Richardson, Daybreak, Nightfall by Jorge Lujáán, and Trees Are Hanging From the Sky by Jorge Argueta
- Poésie et pauvreté by Antoine Boisclair
Books reviewed: L'échelle de l'olivier by Jocelyne Felx, Les Abattoirs de la grâce by Fernand Durepos, and Comment serrer la main de ce mort-là by Francois Hebert
- Frye's Critical Commentary by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye on Literature and Society: 1936-1989. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 10 by Robert D. Denham and The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye: 1964-1972. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 9 by Michael Dolzani
MLA: Stiles, Diane. Through This Glass Eye. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 172 - 174)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.