With her poem Planet Earth, P.K. Page, then in her 80s, offered our world a gentle love letter.
Here's a quote:
It has to be loved the way a laundress loves her linens,
the way she moves her hands, caressing the fine muslins
knowing their warp and woof,
like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising.
Fittingly, the Victoria writer's poem was packed into a space shuttle and sent zooming around Planet Earth. That was in 2001, when Planet Earth was selected by the United Nations to be read simultaneously at such sites as Mount Everest, the West Philippine Sea and the Antarctic.
Nine years later, Page died at the age of 93.
A Governor General's Award-winning writer, she's a significant figure in Canadian culture. Page published more than 30 books: poems, fiction, diaries. The late critic Constance Rooke (who once taught English at the University of Victoria) deemed Page to be Canada's finest poet. She was also a gifted painter. Yet today, Page's contribution is somewhat underestimated, says Sandra Djwa.
Vancouver's Djwa is the author of Page's first-ever biography, Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page. The carefully researched book, which took a decade to write and research, is published by McGill-Queen's University Press.
As a writer, Page's skill, sophistication and attention to detail were exemplary. The Planet Earth quotation is typical. Consider the pleasing alliteration and assonance, the deceptively plain language and profundity of simple images offered.
"P.K. Page was a darned good craftsman," Djwa said recently over the phone.
A former literature professor at Simon Fraser University, Djwa is known for such biographies as The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott. (Scott, a famous Canadian poet and lawyer, was Page's lover.) Djwa's Page biography is a must-read, especially for Victorians interested in our city's cultural history. Descriptions of artistic life here in the 1960s and '70s are particularly interesting.
Page moved here in the early 1960s with her husband, Arthur Irwin, who'd accepted a job as publisher of the Victoria Times (now the Times Colonist).
Irwin relocated to Victoria following postings as a Canadian diplomat to such cosmopolitan cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. Upon arrival, Page was eager to gain entry into Victoria's cultural life. Yet back then the city was parochial and Anglophilic. One required a social connection to gain entry into the culture vultures' sanctum, such as it was.
Poor P.K. found it a tough nut to crack. A friend that might have helped her gain entry, painter Myfanwy Pavelic, was living out of town. Ruling the literary roost was Robin Skelton, a newly transplanted English poet and academic (and practicing wiccan). He seems to have regarded Page as a rival. Skelton excluded her from his Thursday night literary salons, much to her dismay.
Part of their friction stemmed from Page being an outspoken advocate of Canadian writers and artists. In the 1940s, she'd moved to Montreal and come into contact with a vital literary scene peopled by such poets as A.M. Klein and F.R. Scott. Meanwhile Skelton, at least early on, was a staunch internationalist and T.S. Eliot devotee who considered "Canadian writing to be of little consequence," writes Djwa.
The pair, both strong personalities, clashed publicly one day in the mid'70s. Page had asked librarians at UVic's special collections to buy a collection of letters by Alan Crawley, who'd corresponded with Canadian poets such as Jay Macpherson and Margaret Avison. The request was rejected. Later Page saw Skelton at a reception, where he told her he'd influenced the decision. Skelton told her the papers were of no importance.
Page, who'd had several libations, is quoted by Djwa as saying: "I said, 'I don't know what. Go boil your head' or 'Go back to England'... The whole party stopped and Skelton and I had a rip-snorting row, publicly.' "
Overall, what truly impresses in Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page is the variety, scope and influence of her life. It's a portrait of a woman who was complex, passionate, driven - and tremendously gifted.
Page was born in Dorset, England. Her family immigrated to Red Deer when she was three. Her grandfather had been a wealthy landowner. A photo of her father, Lionel Page, portrays him as a fur-coated homesteader. There were tough times early on - for a time Lionel drove a cab. He went on to a distinguished military career, ultimately becoming commander-in-chief of Atlantic Command, responsible for the defence of Canada's East Coast during the Second World War.
P.K. Page's first great love was F.R. Scott, whom she met in 1942. Page had joined a group of Montreal writers and artists influenced by modernism. The intellectual Scott was a kindred spirit, a poet and lawyer whom Pierre Trudeau later offered a seat in the Canadian Senate. Although married, he could not resist Page, a beautiful young woman.
Their clandestine relationship, her first serious love affair, lasted some years. The situation was stressful, Djwa writes: "She began to feel extraordinar-iliy pressured, had nightmares, did not sleep well and experienced bouts of weeping. She thought she was losing her sanity."
Page later married Arthur Irwin. He was an important figure who served as commissioner of the National Film Board. A passionate Canadian nationalist, he was also instrumental as editor of Maclean's in transforming the magazine into a vital journalistic voice across the country.
Djwa met Page in 1970 when she invited the poet to read at one of her university classes. They became friends. Page invited her to write her biography in 1996, surprising Djwa - who'd been baking Christmas cookies - with the request over the phone.
Asked to describe Page's personality, Djwa selected three words: accomplished, elegant and luminous.
"She shone," said the biographer. "She had a great sense of life."
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