It has to be loved the way a laundress loves her linens,
the way she moves her hands caressing the fine muslins
knowing their warp and woof,
like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising.
It has to be loved as if it were embroidered
with flowers and birds and two joined hearts upon it.
It has to be stretched and stroked.
It has to be celebrated.
O this great beloved world and all the creatures in it.
It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet.
P.K. Page, "Planet Earth"
P.K. Page is one of the finest and most exuberant Canadian poets. She is a kind of high-spirited, socially conscious Elizabeth Bishop, a celebratory writer with a keen eye, a roving intelligence and a compassionate sensibility. "It is the writer's duty to describe," she declares as a statement of principle: "Nothing less will do." It is also this particular writer's inclination to praise. "It has to be made bright," she writes, "the skin of this planet/ till it shines in the sun like gold leaf."
Page has the expansive descriptive powers of a writer who caresses the world. At times she reminds me of the English poet Charles Tomlinson, who has made a lifework out of affirming that "seeing is believing." Like Tomlinson, Page is also a graphic artist and brings a strong visual sensibility to her writings. For her, the analogy between poetry and painting is exact and exacting:
Just as the painter must, from two make three
or conjure light, build pigments layer on layer
to form an artefact, so I must probe
with measuring mind and eye to mix a blue
mainly composed of air.
Page's chronicle of the external world ("Not my life only," she insists, "our/ whole planetary life") is informed by a deep environmental understanding of "Planet Earth," which is what she first chose as the title of her new and selected poems. The poet (and editor) Eric Ormsby has instead entitled it Cosmologies and carefully culled it from her two-volume collected poems published in Canada, The Hidden Room. The planetary ethic is the same; the Earth demands our great protective awareness. It needs us to care for it. "Art and the planet tell us. Change your life."
Page belongs to an important generation of Canadian poets that includes A.M. Klein, F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith. She has an intricate formal sense and moves with dazzling ease between traditional forms and free verse. What characterizes all of her work is her deep attentiveness to what Pablo Neruda called "the holy surfaces." Landscapes fascinate her. She is highly conscious of cruelty and thus no sentimentalist, yet she observes the country or gazes up at the sky in an almost mystical way. "The very stars are justified," she asserts in "Star-Gazer": "I have proofread/ and proofread/ the beautiful script.// There are no/ errors."
For P. K. Page, an entranced observer who has been writing celebratory lyrics for more than 50 years, the world can be read and studied like a strange and marvelous script. It is filled with mysterious presences.
You, my Lord, were dressed in astonishing disguises:
as a Chinese emperor, ten feet tall,
as a milk-skinned woman
parading in exquisite stuffs.
You were ambiguous and secret
and hidden in other faces.
How did we know you were there at all?
Your ineffable presence
perfumed the air like an avenue of lilacs.
(All quotations are from P.K. Page, "Cosmologies: Poems Selected & New," edited by Eric Ormsby. Godine. Copyright © 2002 by P.K. Page.)