Beautiful Book, Beautiful Pages

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December 8, 2012

Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page
By Sandra Djwa, McGill-Queens University Press
322 pages (398 including notes).

Reviewed by Arleen Pare

I admire biographers. Biography is a daring, sometimes dangerous genre, requiring time-consuming, research and a finely-tuned sense of diplomacy vis a vis informants, including the subject — in this case Victoria’s illustrious poet and artist, P.K. Page. These qualities of stamina and tact are clearly evident in Sandra Djwa’s Journey with No Maps: A Biography of PK Page. The research is impeccable, the life details, sharp and clear, and the text is always respectful.

This is a beautiful book about a beautiful woman who lived a (largely) beautiful life. The glossy dust-jacket displays a detail of Britten Miller’s gorgeous portrait of the young P.K. Page: she’s wearing her signature red lipstick, her half-face serious against a turquoise sky background. I could hardly get beyond the cover.

Journey is the public version of an artist’s life lived very much in the public eye, both in terms of her role as an icon of the twentieth-century Canadian literary establishment, and her role as the wife of prominent Canadian diplomat, Arthur Irwin. Page broke literary ground. She became a respected woman poet early in the century, when poetry was a hard (male) club to break in to. She appears to be in control of her public image and, despite her death in 2009, PK seems still to have been in control in this admirable accounting of her life. No skeletons, no dirty laundry. Djwa’s writing is scholarly, but refreshingly accessible, and her research is meticulous. There are over fifty pages of endnotes, over ten pages of bibliography and a useful index of thirty pages. The many personal details Djwa has chosen to include are charmingly enhanced by numerous quotes from Page’s own journals, letters and poetry. PK Page kept almost everything, it would appear, and so her life, told chronologically, unfolds in a convincing manner. Very little detail is missing. But the essential, if I may use that term, Pat Page remains elusive. For some reason, I was not able to develop a clear picture of her emotional life. I read about her family background, her interest in Jung, in Sufi philosophy, her passion for words and for paint, her good looks, charm, friendliness, even about her periodic black depressions, but I was not able to develop an emotional sense of her.

Nevertheless, her biography is a major contribution to the study of literature and visual arts in Canada. It reveals that Page actually studied how to live the artistic life as a woman by applying the ideas from Virginia Wolfe’s Room of One’s Own. Page made significant inroads into the male poetry establishment and influenced and mentored many younger, now renowned, poets. P.K. is now considered an important twentieth-century figure. As a diplomat’s wife she also made many international art and literary contacts and won enormous acclaim and countless awards for her visual art as well as for her writing. Her art was shown in numerous galleries and in universities. Toward the end of her life, P.K. Page was named Companion to the Order of Canada in recognition of her life’s work. Journey is a must read for anyone interested in poetry, art, or women in Canada – or, of course, in P.K. Page.

Arleen Pare has an MFA in writing and many pages of her own work published

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