A memory of Brazil and its natural beauty evokes calm, and a strange benediction, as poet P. K. Page recalls (for example) two coloured birds which alight on her husband, Arthur, at dusk, in Rio de Janeiro. Page’s three years in Brazil, from 1957 to 1959, retain this luminous, slightly surreal quality in the poet’s memory, ‘baroque’ she once called its landscape and culture.
Introduction or preface
It is hot. Siesta still.
Not hot enough for Brazil but I think of Brazil
and the small yellow bird that flew in and perched
on the toe of Arthur’s crossed-over foot,
puffed out its feathers, settled down for the night;
and the hummingbird, ruby-throated, a glowing coal
with the noise of a jet
that landed cool and light on the crown of his head.
-- P. K. Page, ‘Domestic Poem for a Summer Afternoon’ (1977)
A memory of Brazil and its natural beauty evokes calm, and a strange benediction, as Page recalls two coloured birds which light on her husband, Arthur, at dusk, in Brazil. Page’s three years in Brazil, from 1957 to 1959, retain this luminous, slightly surreal quality in the poet’s memory, ‘baroque’ she once called its landscape and culture. Page travels to Brazil, but the country equally travels with her throughout her poetic career, whatever emotional, intellectual or aesthetic guise her recollections may assume. She often refers to this period in later interviews and in essays like ‘Questions and Images,’ in which she famously asks, ‘I wonder now if ‘‘brazil’’ would have happened wherever I was?’ (188). At this point, ten years after her departure from Brazil, Page is still thinking about her struggle to write poetry at that time: ‘Blank page after blank page. The thing I had feared most of all had happened at last’ (188). As she reconstructs the experience in her essay, the very ‘thisness’ of Brazil in its sensuous immediacy returns to her: ‘What was that tiny fret, that wordless dizzying vibration, the whole molecular dance? What was that golden shimmer, the bright pink shine on the anturias, the delicately and exactly drawn design of the macaw’s feathers?’ Out of this mute encounter with her environment in Brazil, ‘each tile of each house, each leaf of each tree, each blade of grass, each mote of sunlight,’ she begins to draw ‘as if my life depended on it’ (188).
Brazilian Journal is Page’s edited version of a series of journals she kept in the 1950s and 60s, and the only substantial travel narrative published during her lifetime. Both the public and private Brazilian journals are extraordinary documents. They are marked by intense sense-based descriptions of natural environments, encounters with individual Brazilians and with cultural practices like the powerful and disturbing macumba ceremony. The time Page spends in Brazil and her many journeys within the country mark a turning point in her career. For reasons which aren’t fully explained in the published journal, Page experiences mood-swings during this period and finds herself largely unable to write poetry. Unexpectedly, she discovers a passion for painting -- and Page becomes as prolific an artist as she is poet and essayist.
Page was forty-one when she arrived in Brazil in early 1957. She had met and married journalist and diplomat Arthur Irwin in 1950, when Irwin left Maclean’s to become Commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada, where Page worked as a scriptwriter. Irwin was posted to Australia in 1953 and, following the posting to Brazil in 1957, to Mexico and Guatemala in 1960. Irwin, the ‘A.’ of Brazilian Journal, had been the driving force behind the ascendancy of Maclean’s magazine, which he had begun working for as an associate editor in 1925 and of which he became editor in 1945, recruiting a raft of talented writers, from Pierre Berton and June Callwood, to Sydney Katz and Clyde Gilmour. Page was well-grounded in her career when she met Irwin, and found a highly supportive and thoughtful life-partner in him: ‘He gave me full freedom to do my thing, and a safe and sheltered place to do it from.’
Page arrived in Brazil at an interesting moment in its history, as Brazil was being positioned by politicians and its artists as a country of the future and as distinctively modern. Modernismo in the literary and visual arts was well-established by this time, several decades after the Semana de Arte Moderna of 1922, the festival which is traditionally seen as marking the emergence of Brazilian modernism. In a present-day context in which modernism is being reconfigured in global terms, with attention to its meanings and manifestations in non-European and American contexts, the encounter of this Canadian writer with Brazil and with Brazilian culture is particularly important. The act of travel itself, as Denise Heaps argues, ‘entails the crossing of linguistic, paralinguistic, and cultural boundaries in addition to geographical and political ones’ (359). As a traveller, Page crosses geographical boundaries, from Australia, to New Guinea, to Brazil and later Mexico. She crosses the boundaries circumscribing gender roles, for while she performs the traditional role of hostess as ambassador’s wife, she does so as an independent figure, a female poet, professional screen-writer, and participant in avant-garde artistic and political milieux in Montreal in the 1940s. By 1957, Page is an established writer, with her Governor-General’s Award-winning collection The Metal and the Flower (1954) preceded by a novel, The Sun and the Moon (1944) and two collections of poems, As Ten as Twenty (1946) and the jointly-authored Unit of Five (1944).
Page is intensely aware of what she sees, to the extent that early reviewers of Brazilian Journal note her tendency to present descriptive detail at the expense of the personal. What takes Page’s travel writing far beyond the level of documentation or reporting is the way in which visual panorama -- particularly natural phenomena -- are abstracted into something strikingly other than realist description. What is ‘the flying creature’ in her bedroom ‘about two inches long ... [b]lack lace wings and a green brocade head and a noise like a DC-3 revving up’ (15)? Extraordinary birds appear and vanish in the embassy garden: ‘Last evening a bird like a ballerina -- tiny, black, dressed in a white tutu -- ... did a fabulous tour en l’air, and disappeared’ (18). On a visit to the German embassy, Page is distracted by ‘a toucan with an electric blue eye, a bill like an idealized banana, a body of sculpted soot set off by a white onyx collar and gorgeous red drawers. Splendid fellow!’ (31). At the church of Nossa Senhora, swallows fly in and out of the building ‘as if they were darning the threadbare air’ (86). In the language of the Journal, the natural world becomes a study in abstraction, in colour, form and motion.
This merging of the natural and artificial in visual description marks not only a distinctive narrative style but also Page’s own immersion in Canadian modernist culture, which persists into the 1960s in the visual and verbal arts. Many of Page’s close Canadian friends were visual artists. And if Page’s verbal representations are marked by this aesthetic sensibility, so too are the sketches and paintings she starts producing for the first time in Brazil, many of which are characterized by meticulous detail. Page seeks out Brazilian artists, including one willing to coach her, and reads intensively about the work of modernist painters Klee, Dufy, and Chagall.
Page’s compulsion to make pictures catches her by surprise. It begins as she scribbles nervously while firing one of the many problematic servants in her massive residence and discovers she can’t stop drawing. The desire to make images possesses her. In her words, it is an ‘illness’: ‘anything beyond its radius is blurred’ (63). In one section of her journal omitted from the published version she writes: ‘this painting thing has got me so completely that I begrudge time not spent at it’ (27 Feb. 1959). When her drawing master tells her to give up her coloured pens for another medium, she describes it as an ‘amputation’ (158). Elsewhere, she writes: ‘I paint like a fool, without direction, knowledge, or control’ (124). This loss of control, together with the discovery of capacities within herself she had not suspected is echoed in the language of Page’s relationship to Brazil. ‘Disturbed and excited by Brazil,’ she writes on 12 May 1957: ‘Why? What is it all about? Does place alter person? It’s like falling in love -- with the country itself’ (46). On 14 July, she writes: ‘Something mad is happening to me. I seem to be falling in love with the world. And something in me is afraid. It is hard to know joy from pain -- just as it is hard to know hot water from cold, if either is hot or cold enough’ (1957, 64). In the original journal, Page elaborates with a remark she strikes from the published Journal: ‘in some way I have not been able to feel in this way for so long a time, and the return makes me nearly tremble.’
Page’s complex responses to Brazil may be coloured not only by the expectations of the tourist or foreigner, but also by some of her personal struggles following surgery in late 1957. The removal of her uterus, disclosed for the first time in the unpublished journal, ends her prospect of having children and may underlie, both in its implications and its physical effects, moods of darkness hinted at in the journal. Images of children and childbirth appear in a passage suppressed in Brazilian Journal, in which Page describes some of the female dancers at the macumba ceremony: ‘Another blonde white girl in a red shirt danced a rather frenzied dance, two coloured people did a kind of kneeling dance -- the woman might have been having a baby on her knees -- the childbirth position for primitive peoples ... Under the wide and starry sky they had dug their graves -- or so it appeared. The area within the circle of onlookers appeared like a desert cemetery -- mounds and flowers and candles and bottles’ (7 Dec. 1958). Among Page’s first works of abstract art are a series she described in an interview in 2008 as ‘womb’ images. If the few poems Page writes during this time touch on self, they describe a sensibility ‘gutted’ (‘This Whole Green World’) or suspended: ‘am I so / sold to the devil / that a hard frost locks / those lovely waters?’ asks the speaker in ‘Could I Write a Poem Now?’ Although some of the darker elements of the unpublished journal are edited out of Brazilian Journal, both remain the narrative of a woman at mid-life, aware of the ending of particular possibilities and also of a shift in the perception of time which mid-life often entails, raising questions about self, identity, vocation, direction.
But whatever may lie around the edges of the Brazilian years for Page, it is tempered not only by her experience of beauty and of people she admires, but also by her wry humour and sense of self-parody. We see this in the tale of the goat who will not obey rules, the servant who returns like smoke, stories of inadvertent malapropisms in Portuguese, the multiplying nuns. As Page sets off for her first official diplomatic call, she feels ‘exactly as I always do on such occasions -- that the whole thing is make-believe and that I am dressed up in my mother’s clothes’ (29). Page’s wit is subtle, at times easily missed. The account of this visit, read out loud, is dry social slapstick. A woman, ‘dish-towel around her waist, ... ushered us into what might have been a second-hand store for Roman Catholic artefacts.’ Page continues to look about the room, to no avail: ‘the view was quite beautiful -- but the room had been arranged to ignore it ... Propped against one wall was a wicker basket containing some rather formal greenery and two large evil-looking purple orchids. A telegram was pinned to one of the petals’ (29).
‘Without magic,’ Page writes in her essay ‘Traveller, Conjuror, Journeyman,’ ‘the world is not to be borne’ (184). Despite hints of darker moments, Brazilian Journal ripples with the magic of the natural environments which Page observes. Page later describes Brazil as ‘the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life,’ and she is thinking particularly of the plants, trees and birds she encounters, not only in the space of her garden in Rio but also through journeys to different regions in Brazil (CF 34). In a country with an area the size of the United States, Brazil’s natural habitats are among the ecological wonders of the world. What has been termed Page’s ‘ecopoetic consciousness’ (Relke, 67), evident in later works like ‘Planet Earth,’ but also throughout her career, is apparent in the moments she records in Brazilian Journal: the details of orchids, of palm trees, the monkeys, and in particular birds, which fascinate Page in the variety of their forms, their movements, their sounds. Like another poet of nature, who imagined the spots on the backs of trout and wings of finches (Hopkins, ‘Pied Beauty’), Page has an eye for detail and the microcosmic. As she recalls Brazil in ‘Questions and Images’ she reflects, ‘How quickly one learns about scale with a marmoset for a companion ... The glorious macaw, the flesh of his Groucho Marx face wrinkled and soft, ... [his laughter] making him kin until one looked into his infinitely dilatable eye and was drawn through its vortex into a minute cosmos which contained all the staggering dimensions of outer space’ (188). Like Blake’s ‘heaven in a wildflower,’ such details knit together all forms of life, the poet’s consciousness the enabling medium.
Notwithstanding the romantic nature of many of Page’s preoccupations at the time, one might wonder about the place of social realism in the text. Brazil in the 1950s is a country of social extremes, of the very rich and the very poor who, in Rio, inhabit the favelas or shanty-towns, and are largely the descendants of Africans transported to Brazil as slaves. The large proportion of Brazilians of African origin and mixed heritage has had rich and complex effects on Brazilian culture. Page comments on the ghosts of Brazil’s colonial past in noting ‘ancient songs to Iamanjá, Queen of the Sea,’ part of the ritual of macumba, or describing her encounter with Mrs. Omolulu, a West African whose grandfather was a slave in Bahía: ‘at the candomblés she recently attended in Bahía, the words of the songs were in her language, although the Bahíanos no longer know their meaning’ (194). The world Page inhabits as part of the diplomatic corps is one of a primarily Portuguese and white elite, who live in a world of Parisian fashion and elegant social gatherings. To this privileged minority in the 1950s, questions of race surface as social awkwardness. On her friend Helena’s arrival, ‘her first question was, ‘‘Have you seen my mulata grandchild?’’ I cannot help wondering if this self-consciousness is for my benefit. If so, how ill they read me’ (133). Page is an astute observer of human behaviour, and her responses to culture are never simple. Revisiting Australia in the 1990s, Page asks,
Retelling it now, I wonder about describing someone else’s world -- seeing with a so-called fresh eye the sights and sounds and structures of another’s culture. Is it not the height of impertinence to tell oneself that one is objective? When one’s head is full of invisible assumptions and prejudice, what conceivable objectivity can be achieved? (‘Australian Journal,’ 24)
It is to Page’s credit that when she publishes her journal in her seventies, she retains material on race. Thus we hear at a party of Brazilian intellectuals:
They say that Brazilians have no colour prejudice, even as they say they have found the way to solve the colour problem: intermarriage will produce a white race. When you suggest that their whole argument could indicate they are prejudiced, you feel uncharitable, knowing that they are so much less prejudiced than we, and why are we wanting to find them prejudiced anyway? Does it salve us, in some way? (140)
Just as there are moments of self-parody in the Journal, so Page touches here on her own culture’s complicity in issues of race.
Page herself recognizes the ethical problems inherent in any aesthetic altering of the real. She is equally aware of how uncontrolled, even inevitable, such a response may be. One crucial moment in Brazilian Journal which exemplifies this tension is Page’s chance glimpse of a group of people in a favela, who are carrying tin water cans. As she tells it:
We drove today up over the hills and through the favela, which should make any sensitive, decent person devote his life to social reform, but I’m afraid my initial reaction was one of fierce pleasure in its beauty. Turning a corner we saw a group of vividly dressed people standing against a great fortress of square gasoline tins painted every conceivable color. Water, of course. And socially distressing. But my eyes operate separately from my heart or head -- or at least in advance of them -- and I saw, first, the beauty. (70)
Denise Heaps describes this scene as ‘one of the more unsettling examples of [Page’s] tendency to aestheticize experience’ (358). The unedited journals speak even more powerfully of Page’s initial reaction to the crowd. The eye operates separately from the head (Page adds the word ‘heart’ later), and she continues: ‘I could only see a kind of intense and burning beauty,’ a statement deleted from the published Journal.
Is it unethical to represent a scene of poverty as beautiful, the very question Page confronts here? Does the possibility of such perception represent the privilege of the middle-class traveller, so removed from poverty that the aesthetic registers first? While it is not difficult to imagine resentment on the part of the crowd, Page’s description raises the possibility that beauty, or colour, are equally valued by the inhabitants of the favela. Might individual members of the crowd have deliberately chosen, or enjoyed, the colours of the paint cans, these people whose appreciation of colour appears to be evident in their ‘vivid’ dress? The possibility of such cultural richness is latent in descriptions in Brazilian Journal. Page notes in passing, for instance, a performance of folk songs about the favela, which also touch on the aesthetic which exists equally in a world of poverty: ‘An enchanting young guest played a guitar after dinner -- folk songs of Brazil. A particularly haunting one had romantic lyrics about favela life -- how the sun shining through the holes in the roof made stars on the floor -- and ‘‘my man walks careless among the stars at his feet’’ ’ (67-8). Does this song romanticize and therefore distort the favela, which has a particular place in Brazilian history and culture, or does it acknowledge the potential for beauty and for cultural sophistication which is always possible and present in difficult circumstances? Describing a blunt presentation in Brazil by John Grierson, in which he criticizes the state of the favelas, Page notes the political constraint she feels as a member of the diplomatic service: ‘We have to avoid criticism but he doesn’t. One Brazilian friend said, ‘‘What did he have to do that for? We all know we have favelas.’’ ’ In the unpublished journal, Page adds: ‘Which makes me think he said the right thing.’ In both versions of this incident, the passage concludes: ‘But knowing is not enough’ (162).
In one of the very last sections of the unpublished Brazilian journal, Page comments on her need to orient herself by creating a world:
I very much need a rhythm of life in order to operate properly -- not a timetable (although once, in extremis I did need just that) but some kind of a world onto which I have imposed my own timing. And this takes time to establish. That is why I am so choppy and bitty when I travel. I haven’t one great overall tidal movement, instead have to establish smaller eddies around the fallen log. (23 Aug. 1959)
In the published Journal, Page omits comments which mark occasional ambivalence about her life in Brazil, the feeling that she is living in a world ‘where the values are not mine,’ yet a world which also enchants her. The image she uses to talk about the ‘terrible despair’ she sometimes feels is that of an object which invades the flesh: ‘I haven’t only come up against the brick wall, but the brick wall has invaded me, become my flesh: pink brick’ (28 June 1959). Viewed through the lens of memory, however, it is a transfigured state of being she recalls, an altered state of perception. In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, Page reflects,
It seems too pretentious to say it but I think I had a vision of beauty when I was in Brazil. Something happened to my eyes that made everything I looked at seem to have a kind of remarkable radiance ... it was as if my eyes were sharpened to a greater sensitivity. I felt I saw quite differently when I was in Brazil. (1987, 54)
She tells interviewer Judy Keeler, ‘Brazil was probably the real experience, the real geographical experience of my life. I fell in love with Brazil, quite simply, it was just like a love affair [...] Brazil gave me a whole dimension or emphasized a dimension that I had, I don’t know how to explain it. ... But I honestly felt in a kind of way that my consciousness was altered’ (1974, 34).
The migration from actual experience to memory is reflected in the language of the final passages of the journal. ‘Get farther and farther from Rio,’ she writes on August 23. A passage largely retained in Brazilian Journal also evokes receding landscapes:
Exactly a week ago tonight we left Rio. I find it still strange to think that the house and the dog and the arara, to say nothing of friends and views are gone more or less forever. It all seems there and as if we will return to it tomorrow or the day after. Hard to imagine it as part of a past that will blur more and more, until it is as pale as the aquamarines and topazes and beryls mined in its earth. (21 Aug. 1959)
Travel crystallizes in memory, retaining a stillness even as memories fade. In the manner of the figures in Yeats’ ‘Lapis Lazuli,’ memories of place persist in the jewelled form of an eternal present. But the present is also the past and the past is present, as the opening epigraph of Brazilian Journal suggests. In ‘Traveller’s Palm,’ the traveller slices open and drinks from the leaf of a tree. And in that moment,
And in that tasting,
taster, water, air,
in temperature identical
a fabulous foreign bird
flew silent from a void
lodged in my boughs.
-- P. K. Page, ‘Traveller’s Palm’ (1969)