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Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page

By Sandra Djwa

Review By Barbara Peace

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 197-199

“ Who am I,” asks the narrator in an early poem, “Arras,” by P.K. Page, “or, who am I become…?”  (144). It’s a question Page was to return to many times, in both her literary and visual art; but it wasn’t a simple question the way Page posed it, and it didn’t make possible a simple answer. Page’s thinking about herself and her identity was not the usual sort; she was asking the question on a different level than simply trying to situate herself as a woman or Canadian or ambassador’s wife or poet, writer, artist. She was asking how “I” bring something into being; asking who is the self who engages in perception; asking about the multiple selves; asking about the relation of the temporal self to eternity; asking about the individual spirit in relation to the unmapped infinite. The challenge for her biographer was to meet Page in that enquiry, and yet at the same time, to write the life story in a way that was appealing to a reader interested in chronological sequence and in how Page’s life work as a writer and visual artist meshed with her life events.

As Sandra Djwa brings out this first and fascinating biography of P.K. Page, she locates the question of Page’s identity in diverse contexts: in the exciting social history of Canada through a time of two world wars and much change, especially in the lives and careers of women; in the evolution of modernism among Canadian writers and artists; and in the global setting of humanity in the space age.

The biography is the product of more than a decade of work, following Page’s invitation to Djwa to undertake the project in 1996. Much earlier, however, in 1970, the relationship of friendship and mutual trust between the two women had its beginnings when Djwa, a professor of English at Simon Fraser University, invited Page to read to her students. It is evident that even before she undertook the project, there had been many years of listening on Djwa’s part, at a very deep level, to Page’s work. Page gave her biographer carte blanche: “you would be free to interpret as you see fit.” (286). She gave her extensive interviews, and complete access to documents: correspondence, diaries, journals, early manuscripts, personal and family photographs, and images of her visual art. It was a great act of trust, especially when one considers that throughout her work, Page expressed a fear of containment. Would she be, in a sense, confined, defined, limited by the biography?

I think Sandra Djwa’s greatest achievement in this biography is that she does the opposite of closing in her subject. Instead, by her scrupulous opening of the story to the larger questions Page was posing, by her sympathetic, non-judgmental and non-intrusive style of narration, and by her frequent inclusion of many voices, especially Page’s own voice, she brings about a book that opens door after door in our understanding of Page’s essential being and her life’s work.

This biography is outstanding for the amount of meticulous research Djwa put into it: the “Notes to Pages” section at the end of the book alone runs to fifty-two pages, and together with the comprehensive Bibliography and Index, forms about a quarter of the book’s length. The way she substantiates the stories with documentary evidence gives the reader a total confidence in the factual accuracy of the narrative. Moreover, in matters of interpretation — psychological, literary or artistic — Djwa’s strategy of transparency in laying out the evidence (often interviews or correspondence with Page) gives the reader the chance to see the basis for her view.

One of the interesting features of the biography is the way in which Djwa explores Page’s autobiographical and semi-autobiographical writings. She brings her own observations, enters into dialogue with Page, and fills in some gaps in the story where Page said little: for example, her relationship with F.R. Scott, or the fact that she did not have children. The result is a book that contains a wealth of hitherto unpublished aspects of Page’s life and work. The reader becomes much more aware of the struggles Page faced and overcame. All this is handled with tact, compassion, and respect. Djwa adds to this her erudition as a professor of literature, with some insightful close readings of Page’s poems, and a placing of the writings in their context of the life story that is original and unprecedented.

I come away from the book with many new insights into Page’s life and work. It is much to Djwa’s credit that she did meet the challenge of engaging with Page’s evolving philosophy, her questions about perception and the self, and Sufism. Admirably, she manages to do this at the same time as sustaining the reader’s interest in the story of Page’s life, keeping it suspenseful and engaging on an emotional level. One knew from Page’s poetry that she had known heartbreak. But because her life was externally so successful, the surprise for the reader may be to discover how much Page had to overcome, of loneliness and discouragement, and of finding a way where there were no maps. Here is a biography that is moving, thought-provoking, and visually stunning; one that succeeds in loving the questions themselves.

“Who am I / or who am I become…?” The fact that Page’s poem “Planet Earth” was chosen to be put into space by the United Nations is testament to the fact that she became someone who grew beyond the borders of British Columbia or Canada. This timely biography will help readers remember her and will deepen our understanding of her life and work. It deserves to find an international readership and to endure as a fascinating story of one of earth’s great poets of the twentieth century. It is pleasant to imagine that some day, someone in space, in the vast and unmapped universe, may be reading her work — indeed, may be consulting this very biography.

Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page
By Sandra Djwa 
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2012. 424 pp, $39.95 cloth