Poetry Reviews by Anita Lahey
Three works by P. K. Page

P. K. Page, Coal and Roses: Twenty-one Glosas (Erin: Porcupine’s Quill, 2009). Paperbound, 96 pp., $16.95.

Arlene Lampert and Théa Gray, Eds., The Essential P. K. Page (Erin: Porcupine’s Quill, 2008). Paperbound, 64 pp., $12.95.

P. K. Page, Cullen: poems (Duncan: Outlaw Editions, 2009). Paperbound, 26 pp., $7.50.

In the title poem of Coal and Roses, a triple-glosa constructed around three Coal and Rosesquatrains by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, P. K. Page writes, “Here, my wrist—its pulse / is yours for the taking, yet it is not yours.” This is the kind of extraordinary moment, infused with paradox—reverent yet playful, gentle yet fierce—that can happen when Page writes about something as common to poetry as flowers and sunsets, and as potentially blandly sentimental: the human heartbeat. Coming as it does at the end of the book—indeed, near the end of Page’s life—this one line effectively underlines all that precedes it, not just in this gorgeous book of glosas, but in her extraordinarily productive six decades of publishing. Through these words, the poet seems to say; I hold out to you the very blood that pumps through me. You may “take” my pulse: read me, know me. But you’ll let go, my arm will fall, the book will close, we’ll go our separate ways. Does she lament this brief, doomed connection? Not Page. She’s acknowledging, owning up to what is.

Coal and Roses is Page’s second, and now, of course, final, collection of glosas. Hologram, published by Brick in 1994, contained a foreword in which Page described her love affair with a form popular among poets of the Spanish court half a millennium ago. Using a quatrain written by another poet, four ten-line stanzas are composed, each of which ends on a line from the original quatrain. There are no metre restrictions, but lines six and nine should rhyme, as Page puts it, “with the borrowed tenth.” Page found the crossword-puzzle aspect of this compelling: “I liked being controlled by these three reining rhymes—or do I mean reigning?—and gently influenced by the rhythm of the original … A curious marriage—two sensibilities intermingling.” She was hooked. In Hologram she worked her way through the poets with whom she’d felt the most affinity during her formative years, including Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Leonard Cohen, and Robert Graves. She called it a project of homage, appropriate as she approached “the end of her life”—but she kept it going long enough to bring forth a whole new set of glosas fifteen years later, in which she communes with e. e. cummings, Don McKay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Ashbery, Dionne Brand, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Roethke, Borges, and yes, Akhmatova. This new collection, interspersed with short biographies and black-and-white photographs of each quoted poet, is a marvelously Page-esque literary primer, stretching across nations from the 17th through the 20th century.

Yet I read with trepidation, balking at the top of each poem. The glosa is a dangerous form. How to avoid the tedious spelling out of all that speaks with more power by implication? I have read enough bloated, boring, awkward glosas to have reason for concern. The blame for these shoddy efforts lies in part with Page herself. Her introduction of the glosa to Canadian poetry, and her impressive way with it, inspired a generation of would-be glosa-ists. (The situation is similar to that of the ghazal, ushered unforgettably into CanLit by John Thompson, creating an instant sensation of the form, little understood but tried and tried, ad nauseum.) Fine glosas by other poets do turn up, but it remains true that to read a successful specimen, one is safest to turn to Page. In “How to Write a Poem” she plays wickedly with Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”: “It is raining and you’ve decided you are going to write a poem. / What else is there to do besides phoning your mother?” She creates—or unearths—a version of herself that belongs with Gwendolyn MacEwen in a land of sand dunes and burning winds. She cracks apart the agonized healing in Thomas Gunn’s “The Wound”:

and I was earthquake country, one vast shake
and then the aftershock and then the quiet
that follows chaos. Now I would be well.
The healing had begun. I felt each cell
working with every other cell, a truce
throughout my kingdom, it was peaceable.
Its valleys darkened, its villages became still,

When I read any well-wrought Page glosa, I am struck by how she manages to call up 36 extra lines that feel essential, as if they have always been there, hidden inside that other poem, waiting to be found.

Part of what works for Page in the glosa is its backwards motion: “You work towards a known,” she wrote in Hologram. Her glosa “Infinite Regression” is a great example of this in action. Here, Page borrows a quatrain by the 17th-century English aristocrat Margaret Cavendish’s poem “Of Many Worlds in this World,” inspired by the discovery of the atom. It’s a testament to Page’s dexterity that she effortlessly echoes the cadence and feel of Cavendish’s 300-year-old diction while also remaining decidedly now:

Once in a bathroom in a rich hotel—
all mirrors—I descried myself reflected,
naked in mercury, and multiple—
recurring endlessly, each smaller me
retreating to a vast infinity.
It was as if the largest me was cloned
and then shrunk step by step. I barely saw
the final smallest me. It was too small.
That final smallest me could not be found—
just like unto a Nest of Boxes round,

It’s impossible to read this poem without calling to mind a much older work by Page:Essential PK Page “A Backwards Journey,” which appears, along with 49 other classic Page compositions, in The Essential P. K. Page, part of that growing and welcome Porcupine’s Quill series of compact volumes containing the best by Canada’s best. Page fans will well remember her “very busy” Dutch Cleanser woman “hidden behind her bonnet” and “holding a yellow Dutch Cleanser can / on which a smaller Dutch Cleanser woman / was holding a smaller Dutch Cleanser can…” and so on until:

This was no game. The woman led me
backwards through the eye of the mind
until she was the smallest point
my thought could hold to.

This journey—toward the thing she can hardly see but which is also her best hope for clarity, for understanding—is enacted by Page repeatedly. She’s dogged, and reading through The Essentialis an exercise in taking up her cause, in donning “gumboots to pace the rectangles” in the lush garden of “After Rain”; in tilting to the word “pale” in “After Reading Albino Pheasants by Patrick Lane,” a word that can “tip the scales, make light / this heavy planet”; in following “The Mole” down “the slow dark personal passage.” One is struck by the careful, cautious attention Page pays to the experience of body and mind, by her faithfulness to the importance of articulating—without skimping, rushing, or aiming to be clever—that fused experience, and by her determination to follow the clearest line of vision she can hold. Is this visionary— a persistent label she rejected—or simply dedicated? A capacity to sit down, again and again, and worry the problem, pick at the knot?

Facing the fact of Page’s entire oeuvre can be daunting; it contains little apprentice-work, few throwaways. The Essential P. K. Page is in this sense a relief. It’s a reprieve to hold in one’s hand a compact 60 pages featuring the most memorable, most confounding, most rereadable poems written by Page, arranged alphabetically—each allowed its own space, unencumbered by time or category. It’s also marvellous to see some of Page’s memorable short poems included, such as “Truce,” “Winter Morning” and “The World,” which reads, in its entirety, “It is like a treacle, the world. / I am caught in its golden threads, / a fly in a honey pot.” (Page had a keen affection for the small poem, and once edited a delightful anthology of them called To Say the Least: Canadian Poets from A to Z.) The book comes with a few small disappointments and puzzlements, such as the absence of “The Stenographers” and “Planet Earth,” two of Page’s most popular poems, deservedly so. I ask myself how these two pieces fail to be classified as essential Page, how they can possibly not belong alongside “The Evening Dance of the Grey Flies,” “The Filled Pen,” “Deaf-Mute in a Pear Tree,” and “Arras.” A foreword that offered some illumination beyond its statement that Page’s poetry “needs no introduction” might have explained these choices. And I question the assumption that a reader, especially one new to Page, might not benefit from its editors’ insights. Page is an exceptional poet, but she’s a poet one grows into. A reader must feel her way into Page’s restless and relentlessly alert mind, much as she continued to grow into the voice of her character Cullen, who dove in and out of her collections, lurking between the lines—experimenting, detouring, mulling, and aging in tandem with her—all her life. The Outlaw Edition chapbook, Cullen, brings together the five Cullen poems in one place for the first time—a delight and a marvel to read, a romp and an epic, a tragedy, a black comedy, a flight from reality, all in one. It does contain an afterword, both thoughtful and welcome, addressing the question of who exactly Cullen is. The author’s alter-ego? A fictional self-portrait? Perhaps “a fellow pilgrim through the journey of life … a process of evolution from matter to spirit,” Zailig Pollock proposes.

But I also know what Lampert and Gray mean when they say Page can speak for herself—and understand their impulse to let her. In an appreciation of Page after her death, Rosemary Sullivan wrote in the Globe and Mail that “No poet had a more impeccable sense of timing. Somehow, when Page broke the syntax of a line, something cracked in you and opened out to the light.” I would add that the remarkable agility of Page’s vocabulary is second to none. No one but she could write, as in her glosa “Poor Bird,” of the plight of the little bird thus: “…distracted / by nest-building, eggs, high winds, high tides / and too short a lifespan for him to plan / an intelligent search—still, on he goes / with his delicate legs and spillikin feet.” Spillikin— jackstraw —the word itself moves with the legs of the bird. Page’s poems abound with such incontestably perfect selections. They’re weird, they’re seldom used; but at Page’s behest they turn natural, inevitable. They require no explanation. It’s as if she plucked them out of deep, dusty storage and created their purpose anew.

—Anita Lahey

As in The Malahat Review, 173, Winter 2010, 71-76