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A clipped page

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Now your least thought is the poor type on cheap newsprint.

—P.K. Page, ‘Elegy’

Every morning since PK’s passing late last week I open newspapers, websites, and blogs in search of obituaries. Clipped and bookmarked, tweeted and posted, I’m awash in commemoration. Poets publish swift elegies, journalists gather quick soundbites. For days I have nothing much to say. Others remember her for me. I take a seat at the back of of the mourning crowd, let the words snag at my ears, bite at my eyes.

Last summer I visited PK at her home in Victoria. She opened her living room to a small band of scholars who are in the process of editing her collected works, professors and students awed and hanging on her every syllable, grazing on books in her library and paintings on the walls. She asked us to help bring out a cache of stragglers she’d recently uncovered, which we unwrapped and held in our hands, passed around in a circle of whispered devotions. A colleague evaluated and dated the pieces as they passed by, speaking with intimate knowledge of thin layers of gouache, bright surfaces fluid with biomorphism of Brazil and Mexico.

Victoria’s my home town, and for me it’s synonymous with PK. Ever since I listened to her read a handful of poems to a summer seminar I was taking during my undergrad at UVic in the early 90s, I’ve been a devotée. That July afternoon she converted a cult of young poets to serve as her disciples. I left the room dizzy from the kaleidoscope she twisted before our eyes, ears belled with tintinnabulations, and dashed off to town to buy a book of her poetry. At Munro’s I found The Glass Air, and at the used book stores I combed shelves for her early volumes, bought the ones I could afford and coveted the rare and signed collector’s items. What I really wanted that summer was a copy of the glosas she’d just read to us—a new form she was testing out in a manuscript that a few years later became Hologram: A Book of Glosas. The rest of July and August I tried to write a glosa. Joined by friends, we plucked an opening quatrain from our favourite poets, our cabeza, and assembled four ten-line stanzas that borrow one by one from each of those four lines. Some of us observed the glosa‘s rhyme scheme (lines 6, 9, 10); most of us reared on modernism considered that an archaic option. After Hologram appeared in 1994, poets across the country papered the walls with glosas.

That same summer introduced me to the poetry of Anne Wilkinson, a poet whom PK had met in the early 1950s. When PK came to read at UVic I asked her about Wilkinson, and she offered to lend me a recording of an interview she’d done for the CBC. The interview with PK was taped over another recording, so the sound of her voice was cracked through with what I imagined at the time to be the ethereal tunings of glass air. From that recording, from Wilkinson’s poetry and journals, and from the description of the character Anne in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, I pieced together my first and only glosa:

Druidsong

But I am two times born
And when a new moon cuts the night
Or full moons froth with my
And witches’ milk

—Anne Wilkinson, from the notebooks

I walk the tightrope, she said—
skin taut, opaque as parchment,
almost bewitching, P.K. said.
Walking walking wooden fibres,
no broom to sweep her fear,
ink-soaked in paper grains,
beaten by Wind, Winter, the Fall
into this pulp. I stir her mash
of ashes, bind her skin to mine,
But I am two times born,

said she, I walk the tightrope,
unwound from womb to stone.
I untie her umbilical knot,
plunge my head in placenta—
let skin and stone leaves
envein me red and green,
let tongue and eye rhyme
enchant me—O Mother Rime,
I bewitch an unborn line,
And when a new moon cuts the night

it carves your circle in stone;
and I, a Jack-in-the-Green,
do sing in Nemi Wood, dance
in your leaves, peel motes
scaled green by bladed moon.
Come, Ophelia, twisting rosemary,
come, Ariel, knotted in pine,
come, hearken to my song, I sing
of Anne’s eye in mine, sing,
Or full moons froth with my

wood blown blood.  I conjure
with Circe, Kalypso, in caves
chorded with mother tongues.
As archangels, we unravel wings,
stretch a tightrope from moon
to woman, weave our ancient
amble, trip on crimson tongues
of after-birth, double-birth,
of another Mother, tasting blood
And witches’ milk.

PK’s decision to accept an invitation from Doug Beardsley to read her poems to a group of students taking his class at UVic transformed me and my Victoria forever. It didn’t turn me into much of a poet, but it offered a new destination for literary pilgrimages: the used books stores of Victoria—Hawthorne’s, Renaissance, Wells—to which I returned in a ritual act, where I collected textual diasporas of PK dispersed across magazines, anthologies, broadsides, chapbooks, and books sold off by generations of her local readers. Once I’d left the island for the mainland, my mother started her own acts of collecting bits of PK for me from local newspapers, saving the clippings and leaving them on my dresser to discover on my next visit home, or, even better, tucking them into an envelope and mailing them to me at various addresses in Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, and Halifax—wherever the itinerant life of a young academic led me away from home. My mother archived my absence, speaking to me through ‘another Mother’—not through sentimental personal letters but through an affect-archive of cheap newsprint.

The only time my mother met PK was at the launch of Archive for Our Times, a collection of Dorothy Livesay’s fugitive poems that I edited and published in 1998. PK contributed an introductory poem to the volume, which she read at the launch, much to my mother’s delight. Since my mother worked for decades as a typist, she immediately embraced PK once I mentioned that she worked in war offices in Montreal in the 1940s. Mom had never been to a poetry reading before, and she followed along with the poems open on her lap as poets read selections of Livesay from the collection. In the car on the way home Mom turned to me and said that she found it much easier to understand why the poems were written the way they were when she followed along on the page as the poems were read aloud. She could tell from my face that I wasn’t quite understanding what she meant, so she explained: ‘It never made sense to me why poetry doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page, but when I hear the poets read aloud, I could hear when they paused and see why the lines break where they do. That’s what poetry is, isn’t it? Learning to pause in the right places.’

My mother passed away on May Day two years ago. By the time I flew to Victoria from Halifax, she was already gone. As I flew across the continent, her major organs shut down one by one. Bereft, I drove to a strange address and wandered around my parents’ new house, an uncanny architectural version of my mother. I found myself unable to write her obituary. Who else was going to write it? There were no journalists to call her friends for an interview, no poets to type her elegies. I opened the paper to read the obituaries, hoping for a template, if not inspiration. I turned the pages looking for something, finding nothing. I put down the paper and went into the guest room: the room wasn’t mine, but the clipping on top of the dresser was waiting for me to find her last words.

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  1. Emily Ballantyne
    January 18, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Since P.K.’s death, I too have been clipping articles and scouring the Internet, looking for pieces of her. I feel the overwhelming need to DO something, to commemorate, to memorialize, to tribute… to something. This piece is so beautiful, Dean. It means a lot to me. I, too, feel overwhelmed by the experience we had that day last summer. Thank you for doing this. I am including it as a “clipped page” in my own file covering P.K.’s death. It is definitely the best piece I have read thus far.

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