P(atricia) K(athleen) Page

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Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) 1916–

Page is a Canadian poet and painter. In poetry noted for its whimsey and luxuriant imagery is limned the poet's struggle to shape an identity through an alignment of private and external worlds. She paints under the name P. K. Irwin and has written under the pseudonym Judith Cape. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

John Sutherland

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[Sun and Moon] bears a direct relation to Miss Page's writing in verse form, and is at once a counterpart and explanation of her poetry before she felt the influence of social ideas. The two themes of the early poetry—themes of unhappy love and of the escape from it into the world of nature—are, it would seem, mirrored in the novel. The "I" of the romantic poems is also identified with the moon…. I suspect that Miss Page was as dissatisfied with her youthful poems as a critic would be, and that in Sun and Moon she made a half-hearted attempt to portray the flaw in the poet of nature. The "I" of the poems is crucified in the person of Kristin. Did this escapist "I" long to be one with nature, to enter into it and breathe its very soul? Then she would gain her wish by having a mortal malady inflicted on her, and instead of just metaphorically being identified with stone, become literally and physically that dreadful thing. But being new at speculation in neurosis, Miss Page is not sure whether it tastes good or not: she is still undecided whether Kristin is an ugly or romantic being. Kristin becomes stone and nothing, but she also becomes the triumphant tree: there were more consolations in her illness than one had dreamed of. And if Miss Page was quickly dissatisfied with the novel—she did publish it under a pseudonym [Judith Cape]—perhaps it was just because she came to realize that her heroine was an incurable romantic, leading her out of the introspective "country of the mind" straight into a blind alley. The solution was a subjective one and would change nothing without the intervention of some new idea. (pp. 14-15)

Miss Page's "social consciousness" is a vaguely intellectualized composite of the attitudes which produced the early poems and Sun and Moon…. The poet's idea of what is wrong with society is decidedly confused, bound to the caprices of a personal conflict, and so her idea of a solution is vague and weakly felt. She is thinking in terms of class in a poem like Photograph, where the two lovers are ironically placed "beneath the sea," and the "swimmers" overhead are "shrinking the distance between continents". But her feeling for the "wonderful soil" of the future lacks the energy of her attack on all classes indiscriminately, and generally consists of a tag line or stanza at the end of the poem. In spite of the venom of her so-called social poems, she finds the Marxist thinking too harsh, and prefers a love which shall hold the "poor soil" and the "rich uplands"—proletariat and bourgeoisie—in a single embrace. (p. 17)

The first two lines [of Landscape of Love] echo the conclusion of Livesay's Outrider —"O new found land! Sudden release of lungs / Our own breath blows the world"—and the poet seems to have been unconsciously imitating Miss Livesay and wishing to share her point of view. But this isolated comparison serves to sharpen the contrast between the art of Miss Page and that of the ingrained Canadian tradition of which Miss Livesay is one representative. Our tradition of social optimism—I include...

(This entire section contains 1409 words.)

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Birney, Scott, Marriott and others—is also our tradition of mediocrity. We are not convinced by its faith in magic remedies and in the better world that is just around the corner; we regard that faith as the device of sentimentalists for discounting unpleasant facts. And it seems logical that its products should be a poetry which is obvious in form and often blatantly rhetorical in style. Miss Page's mole's-eye view of the world may not be more inclusive than theirs—it may not be a model for other poets to follow—but it does produce a superior poetic result. Her writing has an intensity of feeling and a power of expression which the tradition of mediocrity notably lacks. It is always more vital and significant than the work of those who refuse to consider things that are not nice and who must have their own reasons for looking the other way.

Miss Page is a rebel: it is true she does not grasp the full meaning of her rebellion. The critics who have regarded her as a poet of ideas, describing her work as "sophisticated" or "intellectual", have been too much impressed by its surface appearance. The glitter, the flippancy, and dash indicate in her case a self-consciousness unaccompanied by intellect or even by sophistication. Ideas simply help her to locate her poetry in space and time, giving her the assurance she needs to present her specialized view of the world. Nor can her writing be described as "witty" without qualifying the term. She has a kind of conjurer's trick with language, and continually startles us by making one thing assume the identity of another. (pp. 17-18)

There is a sense in which Miss Page's poetry is a kind of game—a game that a child might play in a nursery, imagining each thing she sees to be something else and inventing a life history for it. There is the showmanship of the precocious child, who never tires of demonstrating her prowess and whose resources are endless. Miss Page's world is upside down like the world of Lewis Carroll; like his world, it is full of some funny things and many terrible things, and fascinates by its composure in the face of unexpected and nightmarish events. We tire in the same way from its continual brilliance, and become pettish about its lack of meaning and coherence. Each of Miss Page's stanzas is so crowded with new and exciting pictures, that it seems complete in itself and to require the attention of a whole poem. We are continually side-tracked by perspectives which the theme does not suggest, and forced to make detours to get back on the main road. From the technical point of view, Miss Page's poetry suffers from monotony of form—for excessive variety is eventually repetitious; from too many images and a failure to choose among them; and from a lack of finish and completeness of effect. (pp. 18-19)

But these technical limitations are the logical outcome of Miss Page's talent, and they are closely connected with the basic conflict of her writing. Her work is called sophisticated, or it is called intellectual, because the critic fails to take into account the emotional simplicity, the gift for fantasy, and the poet's attitude towards these things. Beneath the surface there is a dislike or sympathy which wants to express itself in a simple forthright manner. There is a unique imagination, which is essentially naive, and which is independent of conscious ideas or beliefs. (p. 19)

[In the poem Cullen the] world of protective isolation in the midst of nature—Miss Page's world of the past—is shattered by the fear of people, just as the sentimental dream of the future would be if put to the test. Cullen is the measure of the difference between the old poetry and the new. The same sensibility which conceived the heroine of Sun and Moon is still at work in these new poems, where, in "welters of narcissus", the body is always confused with inanimate existence and the one is serving as the mirror of the other. The sensibility still depends on the struggle of the self for power over its surroundings, leading to alternate victories and defeats and never reaching a final conclusion. But now the meaningless struggle with nature, described in Sun and Moon, is grasped as the real opposition of the self to society and as the fear of the self which produces it. The foreigner, who has no identity at all, becomes the isolationist, who is shocked into identity by his clash with those who are suddenly human, and feels at the same time a new access of power. If the isolationist's fear of people is great, then his imaginary triumphs over them can also be great, and his defeats become the inevitable condition of his victories.

Miss Page's thinking is thus Freudian rather than Marxist in origin. Her intense awareness of the conflict between the individual and society leads her to a specialized view of the world, and accounts in part for her poetic vitality. (p. 23)

John Sutherland, "The Poetry of P. K. Page" (reprinted by permission of Audrey Sutherland), in Northern Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, December-January 1947, pp. 13-23.

S. Namjoshi

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The central tension in P. K. Page's poetry arises from the effort to mediate between the private world and the external one. It is possible to describe this tension in political terms, but it would be misleading, in my opinion, to trace its source to a sympathy for political minorities or for the underdog or for the "victims" of society who are isolated in some way, but cannot subscribe to their external reality. These elements exist, but are not, I think her major preoccupation. As I hope to show, her "involvement" is primarily that of an artist, rather than political. The two kinds of involvement are not mutually exclusive; but the second is subordinate to the first, and is, indeed, an extension of it. That the artist must make the effort to mediate between the internal and the external is central to her poetry. No matter how painful the process may be there can be no turning away, no ivory tower aestheticism. Even the observer's stance is rejected and though several of her poems deal with it, she is extremely critical of its validity. That the temptation exists is an almost inevitable result of the tension at the core of her poetry. The individual trapped in his ivory tower of memory and reminiscence, the victim in the grip of impossible social circumstances, are merely offshoots of the central persona: the woman caught within the confines of her inner reality, her personal Noah's Ark, seeking some way to reconcile the internal and external, to make a harmony out of the double landscapes. And for this woman the essential mode of mediation is the artist's activity, the painter's art…. (p. 21)

Initially an examination of her "political" poems—those that deal with victimization in some form or another—is instructive. Not only do they clarify her position, but even in these poems it is possible to see a secondary issue emerging that is more characteristic of the body of her poetry. The Preview group of which she was a member had leftist leanings, and several of her poems reveal what may be termed a "pro-proletarian" consciousness. In poems such as "The Stenographers", "Shipbuilding Office" and "Offices" … she seems to be drawing upon personal experience…. There is "class consciousness" in her poetry, but it is a rather white-collar, anglicized one…. [Her] most obviously political poem perhaps is "Election Day". In the poem she votes against the Tories and casts her ballot, "a bounder, in the box". (pp. 21-2)

What is most interesting about the poem, however, is the distinction that P. K. Page makes as a matter of course between the private and personal. When she goes out to vote, she leaves behind the "tight zone" of her "tight and personal thought". As she listens to the election results she is aware that for the moment her privacy is no longer intact, though on this occasion she does not seem to mind very much. (p. 22)

As a rule, the poems in which P. K. Page deals with tyranny in one form or another reveal a sympathy for the victims rather than an identification with them. There are, however, two poems, which to my mind, form an exception. These are "Only Child" and "Portrait of Marina". (p. 23)

Now, what is most noteworthy about the poems "Only Child" and "Portrait of Marina" is not the fact of victimization as such, but the precise way in which the tyranny is exercised. The only child is not permitted to work out the relationship between his feeling for the birds and the fact of their external existence in his own terms. Instead, he has to accept the relationship worked out by his mother. (p. 24)

Marina's case is a little different. She has a specific task to perform. She has to make the picture out of blue wool for her father, but the experience … she creates is not her own…. The picture that it would have been right for Marina to make would have involved the inter-action of her private universe with the external world. This is what Marina has been denied. And this mediation between the internal and the external, the private and the public, the individual and the world is P. K. Page's central concern. The problem of power relationships is peripheral and only arises when the freedom to mediate is denied. The denial of this freedom is tyranny. There is an involvement, but it cannot be expressed adequately in purely political terms. Even in the poems which are concerned with power relationships her chief preoccupation is still in evidence.

From the foregoing it should be possible to guess that P. K. Page would not agree with the point of view of the isolationists, those who deliberately cut themselves off from their surroundings. The poems in which she deals with people who take the observer's stance, the outsiders, foreigners, permanent tourists, do, in fact, show that she is familiar with the stance, but considers it wrong, even unnecessary. There is a hint of compassion for such people, and the reason is obvious. They have, of their own will, deprived themselves of the chance to mediate between the internal and the external. They are their own victims, and the fact of their estrangement denies them the possibility of harmony. (pp. 24-5)

The main body of P. K. Page's poems deals with the individual's attempt to bring the microcosm into alignment with the macrocosm, so to speak, more directly. Very frequently the dichotomy corresponds to two landscapes and almost as frequently one of the two is white, perhaps, and the mediation between the two worlds then corresponds to the painter's activity, or occasionally to that of the gardener. However, it would be a mistake to look for any consistency in the representation of the landscapes or in the way in which the attempt to mediate is viewed. In different poems the snowscape can represent an idealized landscape, a childhood scene, a harsh reality, a blank canvas or an internal dream. Nor is the inner world shown as consistently superior to the external reality. The inner world may correspond to a nightmare, a wishful dream, a pleasant memory, an artificial reality or a genuine perception. Similarly, the external world may correspond to a reality of false conventions (the tea-table), a man-made dystopia enclosed by office walls, a formal garden, an elaborate tapestry, a climate of winter, a climate of summer, an area of whiteness, or an overgrown area of lush vegetation.

The artist's effort is directed towards bringing the two landscapes into some sort of alignment that permits a glimpse of the truth. Curiously enough this effort is often accompanied by a great deal of pain and the outcome may be either frustration or despair. These negative feelings arise, I think, from four major causes: the stress inherent in the situation; a fear of the more cruel and unkind aspects of the external world; the hopelessness of trying to make other people see what she sees; and an anxiety that the artist in her eagerness to depict what she sees may, in fact, have depicted what she wishes to see. (pp. 25-6)

It would be incorrect to assume that the effort to make the two worlds cohere invariably leads to failure or feelings of frustration and suspicion. The writing of the poem is in itself an achievement…. "Now This Cold Man …" is a case in point. The act of gardening (re-arranging the outside world) corresponds to the activity of the painter; a harmony is achieved, and the thawing of the cold man accords with the external thaw. (p. 28)

However, it is the poem "Cry Ararat!", the last poem in her last book of poems, which is in my opinion, her most successful effort at bringing the private world and the external world into alignment. "Ararat!" is the cry of the isolated individual trapped within the confines of his private ark. A glimpse of Mount Ararat affords him the hope of a possibility other than the chaos of the flood outside, or the stifling closeness of his own four walls. He need not withdraw into his private world, nor is his individuality submerged in the flood. (p. 29)

It is fitting that this poem should give its name to the book which contains her poems "new and selected". It is a definitive and serious investigation of her theme, and brings the dilemma postulated by her to a final resolution. (p. 30)

S. Namjoshi, "Double Landscape," in Canadian Literature, No. 67, Winter, 1976, pp. 21-30.

Rosemary Sullivan

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A poet's identity may be found in the habits of feeling and insight that are particularly, almost obsessively, her own and which distinguish her poetry from that of other writers. Occasionally an individual poem can be found which defines a poet's sensibility. The poem "After Rain" provides such a focus in P. K. Page's poetry. With a remarkable acuity, she explores the dimensions of her own poetic temperament, exposing both the strengths and the potential vulnerability of her art. Like so many of Page's poems, "After Rain" describes a simple domestic occurrence (in this case a woman and a gardener examining a garden) pushed to a level of hallucinatory intensity where insight becomes possible. Here, the poet describes her mind as a woman's wardrobe of female whimsy and there follows a brilliant complex of images, propelled by fantastic associative leaps. (p. 32)

Rarely has one so complete a sense of a poet luxuriating in language. Yet the whole momentum of the poem is reversed with the remarkable line: "I suffer shame in all these images." This line, with its powerful anguish, is the pivot of Page's poetics, for here she articulates one of the deepest impulses of her work. She has such a remarkable verbal gift that the image-making process can become almost too seductive. In her hands, images are self-generating, and multiply and reproduce in a kind of literary osmosis. Thus one has the sense in her early poetry of images taking over and sidetracking the poem into perspectives that the theme does not suggest. "After Rain" is an extraordinary poem in that Page senses not only the technical, but also the theoretical implications of her susceptibility to image. (pp. 32-3)

Throughout [Page's novel The Sun and the Moon], there is a curious sense of reciprocity, of fluid interchange between the human and the natural. The heroine's empathic gift permits her to perceive the static reality of inanimate things; chameleon-like, she can know "the still sweet ecstasy of a change in kind." The author is ambiguous in her attitude toward her heroine; on the one hand, her protean gift of self-effacement gives her access to ecstatic moments of identification with nature. There are convincing passages where the metamorphosis is outward—the heroine becomes a rock, a chair, a tree, experiencing these forms of existence in moments of identity. But there is an alternative rhythm where the self is invaded, and becomes the receptacle of external objects. In fact the heroine becomes succubus; not only her identity, but also the identity of the other is destroyed by her chameleon presence. To my mind comes the analogue of Keats' "Camelion Poet": "When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated." To control this invasion an extraordinary exertion of will is necessary. For the poet, this means a control through technique, verbal dexterity. But P. K. Page's greatest dilemma is to ensure that this control is not sterile, that language is explored as experience, not evasion.

This, then, is the concern of the persona in "After Rain." With a baroque extravagance, the poet's mind builds from the visual assault of nature an exotic web of fragmentary images. They seem to metamorphose spontaneously and any attempt to hold the poet to an emotional or visual consistency is futile. Yet the incompleteness of the poet's private image world is focused suddenly by the presence of the other, the gardener. The poet is trapped by her remarkable responsiveness to nature. Images of rim and hub define the private space which circumscribes her, making her fantasy exclusive, self-involved. The poet asks to break from self-involvement to another kind of seeing, and this appeal is at the centre of Page's work…. Here is the paradox: a sensibility so richly susceptible to sensual detail, to "each bright glimpse of beauty," that even the sense of self, of separateness from the physical world, seems threatened. To the poet this means an almost unlimited store of image and metaphor, but without a controlling principle. Page recognizes the dilemma at the core of her imagistic suggestibility and she would be "unseduced" by the myriad images which seem to assault the eye in "After Rain." She has sensed the need to convert image into symbol, that painful ritual which the poet must impose on himself. She must seek a poetic order or rationale for the myriad details. The whole she seeks is another order of perception altogether, "larger than seeing." The eye becomes the most potent image in her work. It is through the visionary eye of the imagination that the marvelous involution takes place: from the multiplicity of sensual detail to the controlling principle of symbol: "The eye altering, alters all." (pp. 34-5)

[Page] began her poetic career with a reputation as a poet of social commitment and is probably still best known for the poems of the 1940's written while she was a member of the Montreal Preview group of poets. This is unfortunate because her "socialist" poems are, to my mind, her least successful. In fact few subjects could have done more to distract Page from her finest gifts. Like Wallace Stevens, she is almost entirely a poet of the imagination; her poetry has more to do with folklore, myth, and archetype than with objective time, history, and social fact. A fear of egocentricity may have led her to seek the supposed objectivity of the socialist theme, but it was a direction that led to a deep split at the core of those early poems. Many of the best of them describe the dilemmas of office girls, with an obviously genuine compassion. Yet even the good poems like "The Stenographers" are oddly unsatisfying because the poet's verbal facility betrays her. The attention she gives to metaphor distracts from the human dilemma that is her theme. (p. 35)

Many critics have been puzzled by the incipient terror under the smooth, urbane surface of the early poems, betrayed by the hallucinatory intensity of images like "the pool brims like a crying eye," or in poems such as "Some There Are Fearless" and "Element," a fantasy of escape in a dream of emersion into the anonymous dark. The cause of this pervasive sense of fear is unlocated in any specific way, but it does seem to be metaphysical in implication. One of the best of the early poems is "If It Were You," which describes the approach of madness and details the physical sensation of vertigo with terrifying precision. The poem's impact comes from the immediacy of the personal address and from throwaway lines like "If it were you … not me this time," which buckle against the tight control of the imagery. The experience described is one of entrapment in the blind circle of self with the mind held in "walls of air," "single and directionless in space." It is as if the spinning world of "After Rain" has suddenly solidified. (pp. 35-6)

Many have tried to account for the anguished sense of loss in the early poetry as a longing to return to the pristine innocence of childhood, but, of course, this is only a metaphor. Deeper at core is this reaching beyond to a larger reality, intuited in a poem like "If It Were You," and articulated with a growing assurance throughout her work. The discrepancy between the ideal world of the imagination, the potent world of dream, and the real world of the senses becomes one of her most obsessive subjects. Her finest early poem, "Stories of Snow," describes this with exquisite precision. It is one of those rare things, a perfect poem, in which language and metaphor have a compelling inevitability and rightness. The poem is a kind of parable. In countries of lush vegetation, the imagination seeks the opposite, the stark imagery of snow; as if the imagination, never satisfied with the real, must seek the fantasy, the ideal, impossible other. And any attempt to match the made to the sensed always falls short of the dream; the dreamer of snow is left with one of those bizzare glass globes enclosing a winter scene, familiar from eyeryone's childhood, now locked safely in a teakwood cabinet—a poignant image of the atrophied imagination. To lose the dream causes anguish; finding himself mistaken in his expectations that the dream has been actualized, the dreamer "lies back weeping." (pp. 36-7)

In an essay in Canadian Literature [Autumn, 1970], "Traveller, Conjuror, Journeyman," Page has frankly defined the "larger reality" she seeks as a mystic wholeness…. Only in moments of stillness, at-tension, is such a bouleversement of the normal world possible. The ideal condition is one of pure receptivity, inner silence. One thinks of Wordsworth's wise passiveness or Theodore Roethke's long-looking. Such silent patient waiting is an activity more potent than any searching. Thus Page's best poems always describe still moments of the psyche which reveal the mind in the act of transition to, as her finest poem would have it, another space. (pp. 38-9)

The final poem of Poems Selected and New, "Another Space," is P. K. Page's finest work. Its brilliance is a matter of perfect technical control. Its subject is a dream in which the poet sees a mandala: a personal vision of the archetype of the cosmic dance—the poet, a solitary viewer, is reeled into a human circle connected by an invisible axis to a starry spool. In such a poem, the poet must convince that she offers more than a formal arrangement of archetypal symbols. Page's poem convinces entirely; there is a feeling of recognition, a leap in response as if an elemental feeling larger than personal experience were tapped by the poem. Part of the achievement is a consequence of the rhythmical rightness of the poem. A precision in the use of line break catches the compulsive, hypnotic rhythm of the dream state. (pp. 40-1)

The oxymoronic quality of the dream is caught in the image "staggering lightness," as the dreamer is pulled into the archetype by the "blow of love." Throughout the poem Page has used traditional diction—circle, axis, fixed parts, rose—but in such a way that the private integrity of the experience is never invaded, and yet a recognizable structure is given to the whole. Traditionally, as in Sir John Davies' Orchestra or in the Divine Comedy, the controlling principle of the cosmic dance is Divine Love. Page convinces us that the breaking down of the isolation of the self in the dream state gives access to an overwhelming sense of numinous energy, and that to define the impulse behind this most profound reaching out beyond the limitations of the self, the only adequate word is love. (p. 41)

Rosemary Sullivan, "A Size Larger Than Seeing: The Poetry of P. K. Page" (1976), in Canadian Literature, No. 79, Winter, 1978, pp. 32-42.

Constance Rooke

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"Arras" is masterful, an awesome visionary poem which has sometimes been misunderstood. Page contends here with giant forces, and she will triumph—but if we are to follow her toward that victory, we must not be deceived as to the nature of our common enemy. The mistake which has been made is to suppose that the peacock or the royal denizens of the arras are finally sinister. In fact, they represent the glory (the perfection of human life) which is sought by the poet in "Arras" and throughout her work. Her struggle is to join them, to attain their stature, not to escape or defeat them; and her enemy (like ours) is any impediment to that goal….

Perhaps the difficulty begins with the question of where we are: inside a dream, or looking at a tapestry, or perhaps (especially if we know this much about the poet) at a garden party surrounded by such elegant figures as Page would have encountered in her role as the wife of a diplomat. Indeed these multiple settings coalesce, to account in part for the sense of dislocation. Or the difficulty may begin with the first two lines: "Consider a new habit—classical, / and trees espaliered on the wall like candelabra."… [Why] consider? This may suggest something tentative, possibly an experience which is to be approached cautiously. Yet the original meaning of 'consider' is to look closely, so that the first word of the poem can be read as an imperative. Look deeply and come in, the poet says. We consider a "habit"—the fabric of the arras and a habit of mind, which is "new" in the sense of being revolutionary or consciousness-altering, but also "classical" and so antique, formal, and enduring. We shall enter, accordingly, a world which is always there for us and seldom known. (p. 65)

In one sense, [the] peacock (who enters almost simultaneously with the poet) is another version of herself; thus we discover later that it was her eye which summoned him. This dissociation is characteristic of dreams and a function of the dreamer's anxiety. She fears that the peacock's noise will rouse the legitimate inhabitants of the arras and cause them to eject her, so she denies this royal and rampaging alter-ego. Soon the poet will discover that her strategy is a mistake, her fear misdirected. The peacock's mode of entry is correct; she needs more rather than less of the peacock in herself, and so she will end the poem with summoning more birds to the arras….

The shifts in "Arras" are abrupt, as in dreams or dreamlike movies. The peacock who had so troubled the poet is not mentioned again for some time. She backs up from (represses and denies) this too strong image, and looks for safety: "The peaches hang like lanterns. No one joins / those figures on the arras." The stillness has returned, and the poet is separate from "those figures" who are mentioned now for the first time. (p. 66)

In the next lines, the poet moves again within her aura of invisibility:

                       Who am I
          or who am I become that walking here
          I am observer, other, Gemini,
          starred for a green garden of cinema?…

The sense of division as alienation is enforced by the words "observer" and "other," which should be recalled when we come to assess the aloof quality of "those figures" and to determine who is responsible for their distance from the poet. She is not yet at home within the arras world. She is uncertain of her role, though in the language of astrology she is "starred" (fated) to come here. Dream-like, the coordinates shift to the language of film as the poet thinks she is "starred for a green garden of cinema." The controlling analogy is between dreams and movies, in which roles and scenes may shift as the camera or the dreamer's eye moves on. The dreamer may be reduced from star to hanger-on if her courage fails; she may be cast as extra or as victim or as heroine at different times, for she is partly the author or director of her dream and partly an actor without contract or knowledge of the script. (p. 67)

The dreamer's plot, in any case, has taken what is also for her a disconcerting turn: "I ask, what did they deal me in this pack?" Contained in this line is a sense of powerlessness, of there being someone else in charge of the poet's fate—the deck has been stacked, and perhaps against her. Yet surely a hand composed entirely of face cards would be a winning hand? (pp. 67-8)

[The] hand which the poet has been dealt in "Arras" is indeed a winning hand, although she has yet to understand fully the design of her dream or the nature of "those figures" or herself. The cards, she finds, are "royal when I look." These last three words do more than fill the line. Only when she looks do they become royal; previously the fact of royalty was beyond the range of her perception, but now the camera's or the dreamer's eye has fastened on the essential truth. Yet the figures which were remote on the arras are still remote, even as she holds them card-like in her hand: they are flat as cards are, two-dimensional like the arras before that is penetrated. The perception of royalty has nevertheless had a powerful effect on the poet, causing her to come this much closer to the figures and to wish that she might come closer still, and at the same time making her afraid of so much majesty. (p. 68)

In the garden of "Arras" we find the perfected human beings of our dreams, figures so truly exalted that the poet will need to spend her life in the effort of understanding them and attaining their stature. Yet because her vision of them is still imperfect and because dreams are fashioned of such strange comminglings, these figures have been confused with their opposites: fallen beings whom we find in everyday (albeit expensive) gardens, pretending to an exalted condition although their exercise of vision has been so slight that they are unaffected by what the poet sees even now. The poet's everyday frustration with unseeing others becomes in the dream world of "Arras" frustration at her own limited capacity for vision, which she projects on "those figures" so that they become as heartless and unseeing as the pretentious hosts of a garden party. But the truest explanation of their imperviousness is simply that these figures represent the poet's ideal self, from which she will remain distant (and who will remain distant from her) until the journey is complete. (pp. 68-9)

Without the recognition she requires from those royal figures, the poet feels condemned to a living death; it seems less horrible to retreat into the ordinary world than to stay here and be mocked eternally by the evidence of her presumption. But the possibility of an exit seems blocked by the infinite stillness….

But here the world begins to spin again, as the poet speaks to defy the hex: "I confess: / It was my eye." Faced with the alternative of a spiritual death, she finds new courage and rises phoenix-like to claim the peacock as her own creation. (p. 69)

In the final lines of the poem we hear the poet's sorrow that her journey is unfinished and her renewed, passionate determination to reach that goal…. Her strategy is now explained. If she spoke, in a poem summoned up an image like this miraculous and hex-defying peacock as a proof of vision, she thought "their hands might hold me." The peacock was her claim on them, her way of getting "a hand to clutch, a heart to crack." But it was not enough, as no single poem or feat of vision can be enough to satisfy us finally. We may dream of that ultimate attainment, as the poet here "dreamed the bite of fingers" in her flesh and dreamed that she could smash "their poke" (dissolve that last barrier) with an image, but the rhythm of our lives is such that we awake from dreams and must repeat their labour. Progress can be made, however; and so the violence of the poet's imagery in these lines suggests both the momentum of her desire and the frustration which comes from her proximity to the object of that desire. She sees them, maddeningly close—but "as if within a treacle, motionless, / folding slow eyes on nothing." They see nothing without because all is within, the whole spinning world. The poet's determination to persevere and at last to enter that perfect sphere is revealed when she solicits from "the encircling air" another secret agent. She summons another line, another bird. She will not quit the arras. It is a splendid ending, a statement that there will be no ending but success. (pp. 70-1)

Constance Rooke, "Approaching P. K. Page's 'Arras'," in Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, No. 4, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 65-72.


Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) (Vol. 7)