HAND LUGGAGE: A MEMOIR IN VERSE
By P. K. Page
When P. K. Page subtitles this book a “memoir in verse” it signals something a little less ambitious than Wordsworth’s Prelude. That noble brick of a work was autobiography, not memoir; poetry not verse. While Page’s “long colloquial memoir” covers more territory – it stretches over 80 years and is set in various Canadian locations and diplomatic posts around the world – she doesn’t build up any set-piece “spots of time” or make oracular pronouncements about the mind of the poet, or the nature of her art. Indeed she consciously shies away from such Voice of the Bard moments, preferring a self-deprecating and speculative stance. She confesses “What interests me most / is beyond me.” She has no intention of making things cohere or forcing the past into a pattern. Instead, the more she digs the more questions she turns up.
As an example, she describes her discovery of Virginia Woolf as a revelation, opening her eyes to gender in writing – feminine “negative space” vs. the masculine chalice. Looking back, she adds as a postscript that today she inclines to the chalice again. And then a question that deflates the whole debate without resolving anything: “Is it hormones or mind?”
Not all of her shrugs are so deftly handled. One philosophical inquiry ends in a complaint that it “opens a question too big for my mind” and ideas she is unable to clearly formulate. This seems a cop-out. If a poet can’t formulate or express something difficult, at least metaphorically or through the use of imagery, then they’re letting us down. This is what we read poetry for – a fact that Page later sees fit to recognize: “how come I can’t, / as a writer, find words? It is surely my job!” Surely it is!
In Page’s defense, memoir/memory might be trumping poetry here. Art is the representation of feeling, not the reconstruction of identity or personal history. And here the author does have a formulation handy:
One’s memories stored,
stashed away, who knows where, have a system unique
as a thumbprint – one triggered by tastes,
by weathers, by vague indefinable wants
and other ineffables – ‘humours’, I think,
is the word I am wanting for moistness and warmth
and temperament, too – for that watery self,
that ox-bowing river that rushes, dries out,
and is quickened by freshets and freakish flash floods.
The alliteration we get at the end of this passage is something we hear a lot of in Hand Luggage, suggestive of the Old English line. Poetry back in the days before English was English didn’t rhyme but instead used alliteration as its organizing principle. A typical “line” of Old English poetry (and, like all such rules, this is a generalization that allowed for variation) consisted of four stresses, and was split in the middle with a heavy caesura. (I put “line” in quotation marks, by the way, because the line as a separate unit of text was a later development.) What linked the two half-lines was the alliteration, with at least one of the stressed words in the first half-line beginning with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line. To illustrate, here is the young P. K. getting started in western Canada, among
Remittance men, ranchers – friends of my family –
public school failures, penniless outcasts,
bigoted bachelors with British accents.
The budding poet discovers herself to be a “tightrope talker” – someone capable of walking the “vocal chasm” between these strange tongues and the authentic Canadian voices she hears in her classroom.
I was deceptive, full of disguises
a poet in residence, a private person
masked as a malamute – mutable, moody –
Page goes lighter on this Anglo-Saxon line later, primarily, I think, because she isn’t much interested in the line anyway. Her main poetic unit in this book is not the line but the verse paragraph. That may sound like heresy to some poetry purists – and I have to admit I found it occasionally disturbing myself, especially when confronted with some of her weaker line endings – but it fits with the book’s anecdotal, colloquial temperament.
As memoir, Hand Luggage is free of sensational revelations or startling epiphanies. Page writes without bitterness or scores to settle, and the overall tone is bemused and questioning – not just in her attitude toward what cummings called “matters arty,” but in her effort to make sense of what happened, to take stock of lessons learned, re-learned, and all but forgotten.
Like anyone who has seriously tried to engage with their own past, Page has trouble reconciling the person she was with the person she has become, the ideal with the reality. Typically we don’t notice these changes because they occur unconsciously. Taking up her last diplomatic post in Mexico Page is shocked to find how little she resembles the woman of her youth. “I wasn’t the person who’d gone / abroad in the fifties,” she realizes. She is ashamed and horrified to discover that she has become less independent, “accustomed to privilege”:
How it occurred
I couldn’t imagine. Seduced, is the word –
a gradual seduction – and I had succumbed.
The diplomat’s wife on the receiving line is now “this middle-aged woman whom I wouldn’t like / had we been introduced.” And then the piercing parenthesis: “Know thyself . . . ? Take the lumps. You are not who you think.”
And how does the critical impulse respond to this wise call for reserving judgment? Perhaps Hand Luggage is not the book you might think. It has some good poetry, but also quite a bit of uninspired leg-work. And the footnotes, I think, were a mistake. But like any successful memoir, it is also something unique – in this case an engaging and wryly observed re-examination, in tranquility, of the ox-bow twists taken by a watery, ceaselessly questioning self.
Review first published online May 3, 2006.