Canvas and Page

  • Brian Busby
    The Dusty Bookcase: A journey Through Canada's Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing. Biblioasis (purchase at
  • Michèle Rackman Hall
    The Art of P. K. Irwin: observer, other, Gemini. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

The poet P. K. Page (1916–2010) and the painter P. K. Irwin were the same person, but Michèle Rackham Hall’s fine study of Irwin’s art suggests that Page’s readers have failed to appreciate the importance of her self-understanding as a visual artist, and the accomplishment of her painting. The Art of P. K. Irwin is a short monograph that combines biography and interpretation—an extended essay, in effect, rather than a catalogue raisonné. It both draws upon and complements the major biography of Page, Sandra Djwa’s Journey with No Maps (2012). Hall’s book includes a foreword by Zailig Pollock and sixty-five illustrations: Page’s drawings and paintings are reproduced, some in colour, as are, for comparison, artworks by Paul Klee and Mark Tobey. Hall’s scholarship is admirable, and the publication itself is lovely.

Page’s painterly surname was that of her husband, the Canadian diplomat William Arthur Irwin, and her artistic activity was linked to his postings abroad. In Hall’s account, the Irwins’ Brazilian sojourn, which began in 1957, established P. K.’s dual vocation: “In Brazil, P. K. Page the poet became P. K. Irwin the painter. Something about this place beckoned the Pollux to her Castor, demanded a new identity: one primarily associated with the visual instead of the verbal.” In 1964, the Irwins moved from Mexico to Victoria, BC, which Pollock describes (not unfairly) as a “somewhat culturally isolated provincial capital.” At first Page suffered from “loneliness and isolation,” and from the “fog of depression” that had settled upon her in Mexico, but eventually she was taken up by a community of local artists. Before Brazil, Mexico, and BC, Page lived for a time in Australia, again for diplomatic reasons. Hall does not consider the influence on Irwin of Indigenous Australian art, which Djwa acknowledges in Journey with No Maps, but as her deep interest in Sufism attests, Page was attracted to non-Western traditions of belief and expression. (“Bark Drawing,” from Cry Ararat! [1967], is a relevant poem in this regard.) Hall is also silent on Page’s early romantic relationship with F. R. Scott, which is slightly odd given that Scott’s wife was the painter Marian Dale Scott, who moved in the same artistic circles as the Preview poets, including Page and Scott. Any loose ends do not impugn Hall’s excellent book, which is a welcome addition to scholarship on Page, on Canadian literature and the visual arts, and on modernism in Canada; they merely hint at what remains to be explored of the fascinating double life of Irwin and Page.

Whereas The Art of P. K. Irwin is specialized and focused, Brian Busby’s The Dusty Bookcase is casual and eclectic. It contains brief, breezy reviews and mild defences of ostensibly overlooked works of Canadian literature. The book “is a plea to look beyond the canon,” Busby writes. “We should read the forgotten,” he proposes, “because previous generations knew them well,” and because “[o]ur literature is more interesting, more creative, more diverse, and much greater than the industry behind these things would have you believe.” Busby pays particular attention to Grant Allen, Kenneth Millar and Margaret Millar, and Brian Moore. He describes Roger Lemelin’s Les Plouffe (1948) as “one of the cornerstones in our literature,” Edward McCourt’s Fasting Friar (1963) as “a complex, yet taut, novel written by a sure hand,” and André Langevin’s Orphan Street (1976)—a translation of Une Chaîne dans le parc—as “just about the greatest Canadian novel I’ve ever read.” Busby also describes pulp of various persuasions, much of it unquestionably sexist, racist, or both. De gustibus non est disputandum, but neither Selena Warfield’s The Whip Angels (1968), a pornographic novel, nor Nicholas Loupos’ The Happy Hairdresser (1973), an erotic memoir, seem auspicious subjects for even the most iconoclastic critic. Busby is enthusiastic about his findings, but his descriptions of the volumes on his dusty shelves will make it difficult for many readers to share his excitement.

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