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First biography of P.K. Page suffers with style issues

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Journey with No Maps

A Life of P.K. Page

By Sandra Djwa

McGill-Queen's University Press, 424 pages, $40

The cult of Canadian author and artist P.K. Page grows ever larger with the appearance of this hefty biography. As the first and only Page biography, B.C. academic Sandra Djwa's is by default the best. But it is often frustrating.

By the time of her 2010 death at age 93, many Canadian critics and authors viewed Page (whose initials standard for Patricia Kathleen) as one of the country's finest poets. Although she was well-regarded as a painter and author of prose and children's books, her poetic legacy remains her primary one.

Page's achievements gather additional significance since, at the time of her early writing, "poetry and publishing were still largely a man's world." Consequently, many younger women artists saw Page as a trailblazer, who found herself "caught between the old order and the new."

Page was also trailblazer for helping bring modernism to Canadian poetry, and later in her mastery of the glosa form. In a glosa, a poet borrows an existing quatrain and produces a new poem of four stanzas, each stanza ending with one of the original, borrowed lines. Page's 1994 book Hologram established her mastery of this form.

Page's first book (a novel, The Sun and the Moon) appeared in 1944 (under the pseudonym Judith Cape) and her first book of poetry (As Ten, As Twenty) appeared in 1946. However, it was not until the 1970s, an explosive time in Canadian publishing, that her career took off.

Page's productivity and cultural presence increased dramatically, yet Djwa, observing a fairly strict chronology, consequently spends only the last 100 pages detailing her final 40 years. These years, which Page spent living and writing in Victoria, constitute the most interesting and important part of Page's artistic life.

The earlier part of Page's life still holds historical significance for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Page worked at the National Film Board in its early years.

She also married diplomat Arthur Irwin, and thus became an ambassador's wife stationed in Australia, Brazil and Mexico. However, the biography drags in these chapters (thus, through the majority of the book), since Page does little artistic work.

Also, in the early chapters, Page's scandalous romance with the married poet F.R. Scott takes centre stage. Page grew up in Red Deer, Alta., Calgary and Winnipeg, then lived in St. John, N.B., but spent the significant part of her early writing career in Montreal, where she met Scott and helped found the important literary journal Preview.

Certainly, the romance with Scott similarly took centre stage in Page's life. Djwa, now retired from Simon Fraser's English department, earlier published Scott's biography, so has clear knowledge of and interest in this affair. However, Page's relationship with Scott was notable only because of the public figures involved, and its appearance in their writings, and otherwise unremarkable.

The same can be said of Page's Sufism, which infuses the book. This certainly informs her writing and painting (as P.K. Irwin) and thus demands attention. Yet Djwa's continual emphasis of Page's love affair with Scott and her Sufi world view reduces Page to a flighty figure of few dimensions.

What frustrates about this is that Page herself made a similar complaint during life and suggested the proper solution. Djwa writes, "In late March 2000, we had exchanged a series of emails about the differences between her perspective on her life (non-linear and symbolic) and her biographer's, which she saw as linear and literal."

Specifically, Page objected to "a chronological, date and place emphasis" that is precisely Djwa's emphasis, with chapter titles like "Montreal: Art and Life, 1941-1944." Page is correct to surmise that the resulting book would lack artistry and depth and thus fall short of its subject.

Djwa, to her credit, is right to define the biographer's task as being "to establish the main events of a life." However, creative licence, not with the facts but their presentation and organization, the book's style and structure, might have produced a more engaging text and testament.

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball's latest book, The Politics of Knives, just appeared with Coach House Books.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J9

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