Page in the Darkness

  • P. K. Page and Margaret Steffler (Editor)
    Mexican Journal. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
Reviewed by Emily Ballantyne

The recurring image of this journal is darkness—night, black landscapes, shadow, despair, and the unknowable. After the aesthetic ecstasy of three years in Brazil, P. K. Page’s Mexican Journal recounts her spiritual and artistic “undoing.” Page is looking for definition and purpose, and is at odds with her environment, her spirit, and her body. As she battles with depression, she looks inward, deep into the darkness on a quest for knowledge and purpose.

This volume, though the third published in the Collected Works of P. K. Page, is the first to present exclusively new material. It reveals a different side of Page—a view that comes primarily from Margaret Steffler’s careful editorial decisions. Mexican Journal presents an excised text that includes several main narratives: Page’s literary and artistic life, her observations about Mexico, and her spiritual quest. However, the entries that are presented are unexcerpted, and thus paint a complete picture of Page’s state of mind at the time of their composition. The volume, as a result, is a candid expression of Page’s lived experience in Mexico as an artist and the wife of a Canadian diplomat. In this private journal, she confronts her conflicting public and private identities, seeking a spiritual solace that she never quite finds over the course of the text.

Given how heavily Page edited Brazilian Journal before it was published, Mexican Journal’s raw, personal prose can sometimes be a shock to the system. As a very self-conscious writer, Page often omitted the personal, going so far as to identify which pieces of writing in her journal were private and which were public. In this edition of the text, Steffler privileges the personal, allowing for a deeper sense of Page’s interiority. Page directly addresses the ways in which her spiritual and aesthetic life conflicts with her public life. She reflects that she is “cast in a role that isn’t mine,” often unable to paint due to dinner parties and diplomatic calls to “large house after large house, each apparently housing one isolated woman.” She candidly discusses turning down invitations to events that would reflect poorly on her Embassy, and feels great fear that she might be identified as “the Canadian Ambassadress” in a photo with visiting Subud spiritual advisers.

We find Page searching for her purpose, and for a clear sense of God. At the turning point in the journal, a Gurdjieff scholar rejects her and tells her she is not ready for spiritual enlightenment. This crushes Page, who was quite anxious about meeting with him. The experience defeats her, leaving her cut off in the dark. She reflects, “[h]e had rejected me as unworthy . . . I who had always been special. This was bad enough. What was worse was the despair. There wasn’t a way—or if there was—I could not follow it. I was unable. And alone.” In this moment, the darkness manifests itself as the unknowable. Page is kept out from the light—she knows it exists, but is not for her. And yet, with determination and intense vulnerability, she continues her spiritual journey. She practises quieting her mind and submitting her body to external forces; she journeys from reading Jung and Gurdjieff through practising Subud, partaking in Catholic ritual, attempting astral projection, and exploring the work of Idries Shah and Sufism, where her journal trails off. Though the journey is incomplete, Page’s dogged determination provides its own kind of hopeful possibility.

One of the bright lights in all of this darkness is Page’s friendship with surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. She serves as Page’s spiritual adviser, art teacher, and confidante. Carrington helps her discover new mediums of expression and walks Page through some of her first experiences showing and selling her artwork. She helps Page find egg tempera, a medium she is delighted to find “so supremely well suited to my temperament,” and later, gold leaf, a medium that thrills her in much of the Mexican art she loves. Carrington also offers guidance on Page’s spiritual search, providing answers that help to illuminate her path and challenge her to continue after her difficult encounter. Mexican Journal reminds us of the necessity of darkness in the journey for self-knowledge and purpose. Though at times the journal is heart-wrenching, it provokes a very real and deeply felt sense of wonder.

This review “Page in the Darkness” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 160-161.

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