Archive for February, 2013

P.K. Page a woman poet of courage

February 8, 2013

untitledJourney With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page by Sandra Djwa Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s, 2012 424 pages, $40

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

This epic biography of Patricia Kathleen Page is a fine example of Canadian literary history and serves as a unique woman’s story. Known primarily as a poet, Page also painted, wrote fiction and librettos and kept diaries. Djwa, an English professor emerita at Simon Fraser University, got to know Page in 1970, when the poet was a guest speaker in her classroom. As their friendship developed, so did the idea of a biography. Djwa was given full access to Page’s papers and conducted extensive interviews with Page and her family and friends. The result is a work taking over a decade to complete, published two years after Page’s death, at age 93.

Page was born in 1916 and her long creative journey started in the midst of the Second World War. She began her writing career at a time when Canadian artists, let alone women artists, faced many obstacles. “I have a destination, but no maps,” Page wrote.

Page’s father, Lionel Page was a First World War officer and hero; her mother Rose, artistic and interested in the supernatural. Page and her younger brother Michael grew up in Red Deer, Calgary and Winnipeg, eventually settling in St. John, New Brunswick. Page (or “Patty” as she was called) grew into a tall, confident woman within a family of comfortable means. When Page moved to Montreal to launch her literary career, she brought with her a talent for writing, the backing of supportive parents and lots of courage. Her aspirations were exciting-and exceptional-for a young woman of her generation.

Page published her first novel, The Sun and the Moon in 1944 under the pseudonym Judith Cape. Her first book of poetry, As Ten, As Twenty was published in 1946. Also in the period, Page experienced her first big love with constitutional lawyer and poet F.R. Scott. The pair worked together on Preview, a literary magazine. Some of Page’s poems were influenced by the left-wing politics of Scott and others. Scott was in an ‘open’ marriage to painter Marian Dale and the couple’s extra-marital romance led to feelings of conflict for Page but also inspired poetry. Page wrote in “Alphabetical”: “I once was caught in its slipstream/and like dust/in a ray of sunlight/everything shone.”

Page’s romantic turmoil found no resolution and so she eventually left Montreal, though the couple would continue to communicate over the years. Djwa has also described this love story from Scott’s perspective in her 1987 biography, The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott.

Page’s life took another turn while working as a scriptwriter at the National Film Board in Ottawa. She met Arthur Irwin, former editor at Maclean’s magazine. He was widowed with grown children and offered Page a loyal, supportive relationship. They married and spent the post-war decades living in Australia where Irwin served as Canadian high commissioner, followed by posts as ambassador in Brazil and Mexico. It was while in Brazil, that Page began painting and this biography includes colored plates of her visually unique and beautiful work.

When the couple returned to Victoria, BC in the early 1970s, Page joins a Sufi study group, embarking on a spiritual quest that would sustain her to her death. Page was still writing in to her 70s, publishing Hologram: A Book of Glosas to acclaim. Known primarily for her lyrical poetry, Page inspired a generation of women writers following hers’, including Margaret Atwood and Alice Munroe.”…It was…like a laying on of hands, a feeling that you could do it because, look, it could be done,” Atwood wrote about Page and the very few other female Canadian poets publishing in those earlier times.

Djwa’s linear account leaves few unrecorded incidents in Page’s life. The reader could conclude more mystery dwells in the art produced by Page than in her life. Below the surface of Page’s seemingly conventional life however, existed a perceptive, spiritually motivated and gifted artist. Djwa succeeds to illuminate the many influences and passions informing the art of an intriguing, accomplished and remarkable Canadian woman.

Reprinted from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Issue #14, an on-line Canadian literary journal, at