REVIEWED HERE: Journey with No Maps: A Life of P. K. Page, by Sandra Djwa, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 418 pages, $39.95; aka bpNichol: A Preliminary Biography, by Frank Davey, ECW, 338 pages, $22.95
“The biographical part of literature,” wrote Samuel Johnson early in his 18th-century life, “is what I love most.” He then authored Lives of the English Poets, a new form of writing termed later “literary biography,” that is, biography complemented by critical analysis of the poet’s work. Many literary biographies are now being written by friends and acquaintances of the poets themselves.
When P.K. Page (1916-2010), painter, short fiction writer and extraordinary poet, sought a biographer, she turned in 1996 to Sandra Djwa, author of The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott (1987) and professor emeritus of Simon Fraser University. Djwa, who first met Page in 1970, when she invited her to give a reading at Simon Fraser, accepted the assignment. The loving result is a candid work shaped by Djwa’s many subsequent interviews with the writer, as well as interviews with Page’s husband, distinguished statesman Arthur Irwin, and many of her friends.
Writing aka bpNichol: A Preliminary Biography, Frank Davey, critic, poet, and professor emeritus of the University of Western Ontario, plays an important role in the biography itself. In 1966, he was arguing with Nichol about visual poetry in the pages of his journal, Open Letter; in 1972, Nichol was the most active contributing editor of the journal; by 1976, Davey and Nichol were the two major editors at Coach House Press.
In Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page, Djwa follows her subject’s early and formative years in the Canadian West and in England to her remarkable literary and personal life in Montreal. There, Page became, as she herself stated, “a real writer,” a fine poet who garnered national and international critical attention for her detailed explorations of modernity.
In Montreal, Page fell in love with poet and constitutional authority F.R. Scott, an unhappily married man, and the turmoil and tragedy of their relationship is a crucial and hitherto relatively unexplored part of her life. Scott’s later appearances in the biography present a sad conclusion to their story.
When Scott refused to obtain a divorce (“I never got over being rejected,” Page commented afterward), she married Irwin, then commissioner of the National Film Board, and began her new career as the articulate and enterprising wife of the high commissioner to Australia, then ambassador to Brazil, then to Mexico. She returned to Canada only to reside in Victoria, where Irwin had accepted the position of publisher of the Victoria Daily Times and the Daily Colonist.
In all her roles as poet and fiction writer, avid painter and consummate hostess, Page was a devoted wife and companion. She continued her own writing, gave vibrant colours to her paintings, and still had time to give many talks and addresses while Arthur was posted abroad.
Illustrated with paintings and photographs, Journey with No Maps is a detailed voyage through Page’s life, including her lifelong quest for self-discovery, her inceasing involvement with Sufism and her self-description as “a borderline being.” This first full biography of a multitalented poet and visual artist, who won applause from such disparate figures as Stephen Spender, Joseph Brodsky and Margaret Atwood, is a foundational work future studies will consult for a full appreciation of Page’s astonishing career as a major artist of our time.
bpNichol (1944-1988), an innovative and important poet, was born in Vancouver into an unhappy family. At the age of 20, he came to Toronto, where he developed his reputation as a leading force on the innovative side of contemporary poetics.
A visual poet and a publisher with, among many, Coach House, he was constantly searching to expand the meaning of words. When he is at his most playful with language, he finds the words, then contorts them, wrestling them into new meanings, new forms and even new words.
Leaving behind his regular poems for “ideopomes,” he distinguishes between “poem” and “pome.” The latter can be “numerous things – a piece of typography, an optical trick, a small burst of sound. A ‘pome’ can tear words apart as well as link them together.”
Nichol’s 16-year involvement with the Toronto-based therapy institute Therafields reflected his hope to build “honest communication between individuals and from there a trust-filled community.” As Davey shows, his preference for harmony, his inner need to avoid discord, is rooted not in aesthetics but in his personal life.
Therafields and its deep connection with Nichol’s complex life become a major contention for his widow Eleanor. She did not support this biography’s publication, for she had “assumed that a ‘literary biography’ would make fewer links between [Therafields] and his writing.” All of her husband’s seemingly autobiographical writings, she believes, are fictional.
On the other hand, Davey believes that the fiction is indeed autobiography. Nichol’s most famous poem, The Martyrology, “was itself an ongoing present-tense autobiography.”
Less a full biography of Nichol’s life than Davey’s detailed study of the autobiographical dimensions of his poetry, aka bpNichol, like Journey with No Maps, is an important reference work for present and future generations.
David Staines, general editor of the New Canadian Library, is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa.