by Wanda Praamsma
Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012
Sandra Djwa’s Journey With No Maps gives a thorough, chronological look into the life of the much loved and celebrated Canadian poet P.K. Page. It’s a biography, to be sure, written by an academic who was close with Page and delved deep into the writer’s life. Djwa is unflinching in her attention to detail, her precision in handling a very full life. And Page is a personality one wants to get to know—a woman who pushed on with her poetry at a time (starting in the 1940s) when it wasn’t easy to be recognized as a female writer in Canada, and who went on to great success at home and abroad as both poet and painter.
Yet, it’s easy to wonder, what Page would think of such a biography, a linear telling of her life, from the minute details of her parents’ and grandparents’ lives, through her childhood years moving throughout Canada, and on to her adult life in Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria, and various points abroad with her husband, diplomat Arthur Irwin. Curiously, Djwa addresses this very issue of structure late in the book, how Page herself didn’t believe life was linear, nor could be told in a linear fashion. Page believed, as in Sufism, which she loved and explored throughout her life, that all time and events are simultaneous, and the creative process, too, bursts from the jumble of life.
“The process is not linear. And I can’t but feel you think it is,” Page wrote to Djwa as they discussed their differing perspectives of her life over email in early 2000. “Everything we read and experience is, of course, part of the compost heap that produces the flowers, the weeds. But there is another—and much larger—source, the collective unconscious to use Jung’s term; or to quote myself, that there are other dimensions to the mind beyond those we already recognize.”
Here is, indeed, the beauty of P.K. Page. She saw beyond. Of course, it comes through in her work, and throughout her life, she followed her own inner guide, not some formula prescribed by others. She published more than a dozen books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including journals of her time abroad and stories for children. Her turn toward visual art occurred for the most part while she was living in Brazil and Mexico in the 1950s and ’60s, Djwa explains. Page couldn’t find her way into her own language, English, because she was living surrounded by Portuguese and Spanish. Encouraged by others, she started drawing and painting, putting her poetry on hold, and her huge talent in this field emerged.
All of this is well detailed in the biography, and as Djwa explained to Page in their correspondence, much of the role of the biographer, at least in the beginning, is in the “mundane” task of putting together the facts of a life. Djwa definitely does her job in this respect, carefully noting dates and organizing the chapters by place and time. For the majority, the story is captivating—because Page is captivating. But, at times, the prose feels like a list of events strung together, or a gossip column, especially of political and cultural life in Ottawa, where Page lived for several years. In the end, the story of her life does pull through, if in a very academic fashion, and the reader, especially this young woman at the onset of her poetic life, feels she has indeed taken a journey with an exceptional writer and learned much about Page’s inner and outer selves. It is a wonderful account of the making of a creative life.
The question that lingers is one of form – the structure of the storytelling. What is a biography, and how should and can these important books be written to fully engage a variety of readers? Certainly, a biography is not a book of poetry. But should a biography of a poet – and one of such varied structures herself – read like an ordinary, chronological story? That’s a discussion Page may have enjoyed.
Wanda Praamsma’s first book, a long poem called a thin line between, was published by BookThug in fall 2014. Her poetry has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds and Feathertale, and she’s currently working on an MFA in creative writing through the University of British Columbia. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.