Journey with No Maps (Sandra Djwa)

The cult of author and artist P.K. Page grows ever larger with the appearance of Sandra Djwa’s biography. As the first and only Page biography, Djwa’s is by default the best, but often frustrating.

By the time of her 2010 death at age 93, many Canadian critics and authors viewed Page as one of the country’s finest poets. Although 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 book Hologram (1994) 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 her biographer, observing a fairly strict chronology, consequently spends only the last hundred 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 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, Calgary, and Winnipeg, then lived in St. John, 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, an academic 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 worldview 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 that “In late March 2000, we had exchanged a series of e-mails 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 license, not with the facts but their presentation and organization, the book’s style and structure, might have produced a more engaging text and testament.

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