A LIFE DIVIDED:
A REVIEW OF P.K. PAGE'S MEXICAN JOURNAL
BY EVELYN DESHANE
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Nonfiction | Issue 6 | May 30, 2014
When I found out I would be working on The Digital Page Project, I was quite excited. The Editing Modernism in Canada foundation has been working to digitize and archive the entire collection of the poet P.K. Page’s life work, including her poems, paintings, and travel diaries. Soon after I started the project, I realized that outside of Canadian universities, no one knew who I was talking about at all. At every single birthday party or family gathering, I would be asked the inevitable question that all graduate students are asked, “So what do you … do?”
“I’m a research assistant for The Digital Page Project. I'm the indexer for her Mexican Journals.”
“P. K. Page. Patricia Kathleen Irwin-Page. She was a Canadian poet. Her husband was a diplomat. She won the Governor General’s award.”
Most people would stop asking me questions for fear that I would bore them with more. Some would engage me and a rare few sounded downright excited about the work I was doing.
“It must be so wonderful to see an artist’s thoughts like that!”
And at the time, my first inclination was to say, “Yes, it is.” Then I would move on to the snack table.
After working on her diaries for more than a few weeks, I found my opinions changed. As much as I like some of Page's poetry, I have to say reading her personal thoughts about the atmosphere, the time period, and the landscape was a rather different experience. Perhaps I should have stuck with the post-modern idea of the author and allow for Foucault and Barthes to cure me of whatever disappointment I felt when I first cracked open her diaries. ‘Always look at the art, not the artist’ should have been my mantra when I started work.
But the private becomes public when diaries are considered--and it becomes a lot harder to see the author through just a function. When Page arrives in Mexico, she spends most of time writing about shopping, about collecting small items to help retain her memory of the place, and about the many people she meets there. Page seems as delighted by the spices and fruit in the market as she does about the clothing and history of certain buildings. When she does stop and record the landscape and historical events that have happened, she does so by telling stories about the local folklore (the ‘Golden Teaspoon’ is a notable one). She writes poems, like the start of ‘Arras’ and ‘Young Girls.’ She makes the land itself into a work of art.
That is not to say that there aren't huge problems with a lot of Page's writing. She often falls into to a "noble savage" complex when she interacts with the native people. She tends to view her "servants" in a rather negative light to. I would be more willing to cut her some historical slack if she were not in her early forties when his journal was being written (the time period spans from 1960-1962) and her husband wasn't a diplomat. Mexico is one of the final countries she visited with her husband Arthur, and from what I've seen in the other two travel journals, this is where she’s actually the most considerate to the "natives" and her "servants."
If you can get over this almost child-like and petulant treatment of others who invade her work space or do not clean her bed properly, then there are other issues with the writing. Sometimes, Page could just not help herself. The metaphors she uses feel like beginning of a bad poem that should not exist. When she describes an empty room as an “elephant’s womb so only an elephant’s foetus would furnish it …” I just about had to put the book down.
There are some very, very bad sentences in here. But sometimes I can appreciate her attempt at trying to make something that can be very boring, like a travel diary, into something more. The beginnings of some of her great poems are in here, along with the sketches of her art work as well.
My absolute favourite part of this book (and the only way I got through her didactic and meticulous listing off of items and her painting schedule) was its second half. The section is split by her sudden leaving of Mexico to go to New York, where Page took some art lessons with Harry Sternberg. In this split, done editorially to mark time periods, I also believe Page experiences a shift in attitude. She goes from collecting everything around her as an archivist and observer to becoming a storyteller herself. After a “temporary demoralization” with Harry Sternberg and other people in the class, Page retreats back to Mexico, where she meets her second teacher of the text: Leonora Carrington.
Carrington and Page are one of the best love stories inside this text, as far as I'm concerned. Page falls in love with the land first, and then slowly begins to love the strangeness inside of her new friend and the way she views the world:
Page’s relationship with Leonora is everything that Harry Sternberg could not provide for her. I long to know more about what kind of relationship the two women had with one another, beyond the mentorship they shared. This travel diary, for all that it reports in excruciating detail, also holds back and leaves the readers to fill in the blank of what was not said. Page's affair with poet Frank Scott is well known and a subject that she speaks about in her diaries. But it is nothing more than a passing sentence: “I remember when Frank and I were in love.” We do not know much else beyond that and Page seems resistant to saying anything else. Perhaps because these diaries exist in a liminal point between what is private and what is public. Page wrote these diary entries for a small group of friends, endlessly typing them away on her typewriter and editing them by hand (the Brazilian Journal alone has nine versions of her tweaked manuscript). Though she always had some vague notion of publishing these accounts for a wider audience, there is a quiet presence and longing not spoken of in most of the pages as if there is a secret she does not quite know how–or who–to tell. Maybe we will discover later a more salacious and intimate look into her mind and art, where we will know more about Arthur, Frank, and maybe even Leonora. But for now, what we are given is a personal history of art and the land. But it’s still that second half, after New York, where Page’s writing feels alive with neon colours and concentric circles like her paintings.
The things that happen in the background during this section, such as Leonora's breakdown, the visiting of Frida Kahlo's museum, and the death of Remedios Varo make this book a fantastic companion piece to the Mexican surrealist movement of the 1960s. Leonora Carrington comes off as a stranger who has suddenly wowed Page–and Page is not easily wowed. Page didn't even think that Frida Kahlo painted anything of note. In one sentence, she laments that “Frida who spent much of her life in bed for one reason or another painted in a mirror set into the ceiling above the bed her ghastly preoccupations with death.” To this rather callous cast-off of Frida’s large and inspiring output I have to bite my tongue from responding with “Well, try getting hit by a bus when you’re fifteen and see how much you still think about flowers and rainbows.” But Leonora Carrington consumes the narrative and Page's mind. Her descriptions of the woman's work and her mental instability are moving as they are exploitative.
In all of Frida Kahlo's paintings, Diego Riveria lurks in the background. Similarly, for Leonora Carrington's work, her husband Max Ernst takes up the forefront in many of the pieces. But Page does not do that with Arthur. Instead she fills these pages with “wild girls and wicked women,” as the feminist Angela Carter might say. We don't see the Mexican Surrealist movement from the eyes of men or even through the men in their paintings. This is a distinctly surreal depiction of art in Mexico at the beginning of the 1960s. For anyone studying this period or who has the smallest fascination with Frida Kahlo (Page’s criticisms aside) or Remedios Varo, this is a great book to have.
Maybe when I go to parties now, and people ask me what I'm working on, I can say something that will resonate more with people. I can answer, “I've worked on the travel diaries of a woman who had an affair with the land and painted it for only herself.” And then I can wait for the oohs and ahhs I'll get. Too often in grad school we're bogged down with our experiences, our awards, or something else that wins us experience points in our offices instead of focusing on what we love and how much we love it. I rather liked this small adventure into Mexico and would recommend it to anyone who has ever been the least bit curious about the surrealist movement, Mexico, and the women behind the paintings.
EVELYN DESHANE has appeared in The Fieldstone Review, Hyacinth Noir, and Plunge Magazine. She is the poetry editor for Prosaic Magazine and has worked on the digital poetry and art collections of P. K. Page. She lives in Waterloo.