Sunday, 5 August 2012

P K Page's 'Stories of Snow': "Where Silent, Unrefractive Whiteness Lies"

A non-definitive list of the ten poems which have been particularly significant in inviting me into the world of modern, almost-modern, post-modern and contemporary poetry would likely include the following:

Byzantium (W B Yeats)
The Waste Land (T S Eliot)
Foal (Vernon Watkins)
The Convergence of the Twain (Thomas Hardy)
Homecoming (Paul Celan)
At the Quinte Hotel (Al Purdy)
The Tollund Man (Seamus Heaney)
Bagpipe Music (Louis MacNeice)
The Shadow of Cain (Edith Sitwell)
Stories of Snow (P K Page)

I've written about some of these before, and they could probably all be an essay in themselves. To use one of my favourite over-used words, it is a pretty random list. Poems discovered by chance, poems studied in high school or university, poems which I wasn't sure I liked at the time but which ultimately took on greater meaning, poems I heard read by the poet themself (T S Eliot, I wish! In this case, Al Purdy), poems which led me on to poems I preferred by the same poet...and so on.

I've written before about the modern Canadian poetry class which I took in university and which turned out to be very pivotal in my literary life. Among other significant moments, I discovered P K Page in this class, and that was hugely important for me. 'Stories of Snow' can lay claim to being one of the greatest Canadian poems of all time, and simply a great poem, and you can read it here. (Due to the way the poem is reproduced, be prepared to page over a couple of times - it's a long-ish poem.)


The Canadian landscape, the landscape of the West Coast rainforest I grew up in, the tropics, Northern Europe - all of these are invoked. More than this, these are emotional and metaphoric landscapes, snowy and blossoming worlds of poetry.

In that forwards/backwards/memory/premonition way which I've come to recognise, it seems as though this poem ties in with my Antarctic fascination (although that came a little later than my first reading of this poem). In the end, the reader is invited to "unlock/the colour with its complement and go/through to the area behind the eyes/where silent, unrefractive whiteness lies." P K Page was also a talented artist, and her poems are often powerfully visual, so there is an element of artistic curiosity and exploration here.

I feel, though, that these are mainly emotional landscapes and that this has something to do with my metaphoric/semi-realistic desire to escape the twittering and the human difficulty of the modern world and to go to Antarctica - somewhere more peaceful, where access to what is truly important becomes more direct and less encumbered. "Souvenir of some never nether land": this could be ancestral memory, too, or something that I'd pass on if I ever had descendants; again, forwards/backwards/memory/premonition. I'm just waiting to find out that I had an ancestor who went to Antarctica, though I would likely have heard about it by now.

The painting is by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, the magnificent Finnish artist.


  1. Have you considered Labrador? Not Antarctica, but it might be rather free of distractions all the same. I am interested in vestiges of ancestral experience which may dwell at some deep level within us, drawing us to things we cannot understand our need or longing for in any really rational way. Or things which we experienced ourselves at some early stage and which have influenced us forever after. I think of my grandmother, for example, who identified so strongly with her childhood in a Norwegian emigrant family that I believe that experience hindered her in some ways from fully entering into American life. Or a 93 year-old Russian friend, born in Siberia in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, who came to America at age 5 but who still lives a very Russian life in her California home nearly a century after leaving her homeland. She finds pre-revolutionary Russian poetry much more pertinent to her daily concerns today than this morning's newspaper.

    1. Labrador...hmm, to a non-Labradorian Canadian it seems like the most unimaginably bleak place! Which for some weird reason I don't feel about Antarctica. (Mind you, I am sure that Labrador has a great deal of beauty of its own - and I don't know much about it. I think every place is beautiful, except those really spoiled by humans.)

      I enjoy being a city dweller, but I think that when I start dreaming about Antarctica (even waking dreams) it's a sign that I need to defrag my brain, get back to what's important, spend a bit more time around nature (even just in the park), etc. Part of my fascination with Antarctica has to do with the heroism of its explorers, too. If you have any interest in Antarctica I recommend Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler, unreservedly. It is about her personal experiences there, incorporating its history and exploration, natural wonders, the eccentric characters she meets there... At one and the same time it's hilarious, moving, insightful and beautiful.

      It may be hard sometimes to tell the difference between "ancestral memory" and traits/habits/preferences which have been passed down through families. Some people are more a product of their family than others - I am certainly one myself. I think ancestral memory, and traits being passed down through family habit, custom and tradition, are similar things, but not exactly the same.