In Mexican Journal, P. K. Page recounts her experiences as wife to the Canadian ambassador to Mexico in the early 1960s. Raw, bluntly honest and at times painfully intense, the journal entries expose Page's attempts to overcome troubling phobias and spiritual barrenness. Over time, she discovers colour amid the darkness, immersing herself in Mexican culture, surrealism, and, most importantly, the mystical teachings of Sufism, which would inform her spiritual life for the rest of her career.
About the author
P. K. Page has written some of the best poems published in Canadaover the last five decades. In addition to winning the Governor General's awardfor poetry in 1957, she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in1999. She is the author of more than a dozen books, including tenvolumes of poetry, a novel, selected short stories, three books for children,and a memoir, entitled Brazilian Journal, based on her extended stay in Brazilwith her late husband Arthur Irwin, who served as the Canadian Ambassador therefrom 1957 to 1959. A two-volume edition of Page's collected poems, The Hidden Room (Porcupine's Quill), was published in 1997. In addition to writing, Page paints, under the name P. K. Irwin. She has mounted one-woman showsin Mexico and Canada. Her work has also been exhibited in various group shows, andis represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery ofCanada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Victoria Art Gallery, amongothers. P. K. Page was born in England and brought up on the Canadian prairies. She has livedin the Maritimes and in Montreal. After years abroad inAustralia, Brazil and Mexico, she now makes her permanent home in Victoria, British Columbia.
- Long-listed, ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year Award
Excerpt: Mexican Journal (by (author) P.K. Page)
March 10, 1960
Black, black, black is the colour of a Mexican night. And my first impressions of blackness and carnations and small brightly dressed Indians – mother, father and all the little papooses trailing the wide tree-lined boulevards of a European city – will remain I am sure, stronger and sharper than later ones.
We had a good flight, non-stop from Toronto. Marred only by the pretentious absurdity of the CPA meal. It was five courses dragged out over hours. Designed to please Canadian tourists I trust rather than a preview of what Mexicans expect. At the airport the assembled Embassy representatives, the Chef de Protocol from Mexican External and the German Ambassador and family whom we knew in Canberra. It was nice to see familiar faces.
The hotel where we are staying on and off is very modern, very Hollywood and to my taste utterly depressing. Very dark and stagey with water falling and large plants growing in the dark. It looks out, or our room does, over the roof-tops of this low city. Our impression coming in from the air was that the city was grey. And compared with Brazil with its red tile roofs, it is. From our hotel we see onto the roofs of an immense area of houses – flat roofs, cement, bulbous here and there in a rather anatomical way with cement water storage tanks. Our first black Mexican night was splintered by the melancholy two-note whistle of the police communicating with each other, and little chunks broken out of it towards dawn by a turkey kept on a nearby roof among the laundry.
We took a look at the Residence that first day. It is a fifteen-minute drive from the centre of town along a fine Paris boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma It is very lovely, a wide boulevard down the centre along which the finest collection of Don Quixotes ride on a Sunday – large sombreros, the tilt of the brim conforming to the personality – dour, cheerful etc., wide little armless jackets which give their torsos great breadth and then below the most beautiful pants imaginable – with wide strips embroidered or tooled running from waist to ankle. The Reforma has four rows of trees so that coming or going you drive down a tunnel of green – young and delicate now, because it is Spring. Seasons here are confusing. It is spring but it is the hottest season of the year. That means hot outside at midday and cooling rapidly towards evening when it is cold. The mornings are hazy, a thick smog shuts out the surrounding mountains. As it clears in the afternoon you see the horizon with its volcanic mountains with their sinister looking tops which remind me of sawed off shotguns.
We are told that on a clear day you can see Popacatapétl – El Popo as he is called by the natives – which makes him sound to me like a rather more masculine Pope.
Down the Reforma too, on a Sunday, with all the populace out, are the balloon men suspended from great clouds of balloons of the most elaborate variety – balloons most strangely painted or nippled or tufted – unlike any balloon I have ever seen. And the Indians – in sombreros too, the women with pigtails, moving along this lovely avenue.
The Indians here are very impressive. No wonder Lawrence was fascinated by their skin colours. Our driver – Guillermo, who has driven for Canadians since there was an Embassy – is small, immensely dignified, serious, Lawrence's “obsidian? eyes, long-faced, and with skin – peach-like in quality but as if when peeled it would disclose a blood orange. The two servants in the house – brother and sister – Erasmo and Engracia – are less rosy orange. He has not the obsidian eyes of Guillermo, but his eyes are watching and full of wonder. I am impressed by them all. They are helpful, quiet, patient and very hard working. I may be quite wrong but I get the impression they are full of good will. This is a strange reaction because these are a strange people, I know, descendants of a people who made human sacrifices, practised ritual cannibalism and who may, for all of me, do so still. The name Quetzalcoatl is spoken often enough, goodness knows.
The house is a headache. It has not had a woman in it for a long time and shows it. Also we?re in the throws of a minor redecoration for the Prime Minister. The Government is loath to spend money, so the minimum is being done. A great mistake in my opinion. The house in itself is hideous. On top of that it is in bad need of repair, colour and everything else. But we can spend little. The Canadian decorator who is here is a nice enough boy but with the very worst qualities of Canadians. He is afraid of anything distinguished, has a deep reverence for the ordinary and on top of that thinks in terms of furnishing as filling a room with furniture – not necessarily furniture which serves a necessary function. However, we shall do the best we can. As the climate here is dry we can – personally, I mean – buy furniture if and when we see it, as well as rugs and pottery etc. and make the place nicer. In Brazil we didn?t dare for fear of it all cracking in Canada.
I feel I have a little tribe of Indians living in my house. Another little tribe is busy painting it – its chief is a brother of Diego Rivera, I am sure! A wonderful little man who fills me with great pleasure. The meeting between him and Arthur so full of dignity and feeling it nearly broke my heart.
One cannot help comparing this with Brazil. It is nothing like as beautiful at first glance. Perhaps time will make it more so.
It has not the sea to begin with; also, because it is dry it has not the lushness of a tropical city. Many of the trees are gums. The architecture does not compare with Brazilian. Large buildings here are just large buildings – immense in conception but architecturally disappointing. University City which we drove to see yesterday is impressive by its size, by the number of murals, by its situation, and by its library – a cube elongated vertically with its four sides completely covered by mosaics of Mexican stone – the colours running through the earth colours to white, grey and grey-blue. The whole scope of the university is fabulous – immense swimming pools, football arenas, jai alai courts – but somehow everything is lacking in creative imagination. Nearby on what was once a vast lava field is a new real estate development called Pedregal which is one of the most fascinating and strange places I have ever seen. Many of the houses and the high walls which surround them are made from stones of lava put together with cement – often pink or blue or green, so you get this queen brown black held together with soft delicate dirty pastels. Sometimes the lava stones are painted these dirty colours to blend with the landscape – a sear dried-out wonderful world of grasses and plants with pods or tangled briars – all no-colour, greybrownblack and in their midst a small bush, stubby-fingered, each finger tip bursting into a head of brilliant yellow – and the weird colorin trees, their trunks like stylized human forms in strange positions and a burst of thin branches above on which perch bright artery-red flowers like birds. All the houses in Pedregal are low – almost subterranean in feeling and surrounded by walls. It is as if it is a submerged ruin of a city, but all ultra-modern, and hermetic hermetic. Little ponds hollowed from the lava float ducks purely for decoration. I can hardly wait to get at it with camera and pen. Rich man's rubble.
The old city – the Spanish city is equally walled – more walled. You can see nothing of the houses behind. It is all so very secret.
Today we lunched at the German Embassy a most beautiful house and it was enjoyable. I saw some of the marvellous gunmetal pottery made here, the incredible copper pots, old blonde wood chests, woollen carpets, and Indian saints. I can hardly wait to move into Mexico and out of the tourist areas which we have largely inhabited since arriving.
Mexican Journal is a snapshot of a particular moment in North American life, captured from the perspective of an artist and an outsider.
Mexican Journal, the second volume in a three-volume series of the poet, artist, and diplomat's wife P.K. Page's journals, covers two years of the artist's life in Mexico, a period of great personal and political upheaval. In prose that is by turns vulnerable and brassy, she writes of life in a new locale, of chasing the muse, and of finding her spiritual center.
For Page, entering Mexico was not a case of love at first sight. She and her Canadian diplomat husband transferred there after a posting in Brazil, and her first accounts of the nation are blunt: she finds it gray, unartistic, somewhat backward, and writes that the nights are black and ceaseless. These impressions are tempered as time goes on, and as she falls into a reserved affection for some elements of Mexico's culture, particularly for its folk art.
Between diplomatic events at embassies and with government representatives, Page writes of traveling the nation, seeking out its beautiful spots and the bounty of its markets. She pursues local handicrafts with an exacting eye. And beyond the fun of this housebuilding, she has her own art to consider. Reproductions of her crayon drawings and etchings are sprinkled throughout, and evince an intricate mind at work.
Page also expresses self-doubt at regular intervals, and such vulnerable moments are disarming and sympathetic. Her husband's health presents challenge, as do health crises among family and friends at home in Canada, and she struggles with despair: "Reached a point of feeling that the whole of me-mind, flesh, bone, is made of coarse serge. All warp and woof." Late in the work, spiritual exploration is able to satisfy some of her yearning. She finds comfort in mystical Sufism, though she also writes that she feels almost provincial about it at times.
Yet as much as her personal and artistic concerns invite sympathy, other reflections are certain to be met with less appreciation, particularly where Page comments upon the traits of those she lives amongst. She is wont to discuss her Mexican neighbors with near disdain, doubting that the man she commissions a tiled table from will come through (he does, and on time), suggesting that her servants are lazy, and commenting upon the perceived brutality of local traditions. Such cultural bias lessens as the text progresses, and Page sometimes even manages affection for her neighbors, as when one houseworker is found to protect her place in open books with flower petals, a choice that Page finds charming. Still, her tendency to rate whole cultures in a fast and dismissive manner can be both surprising and grating.
The combination of Page's tremendous personal vulnerability with her often very critical observations makes for a text that is striking for its consistent sense of honesty, even when what Page has to say is not necessarily what one would expect from a diplomat's wife. Her artistic pursuits are enlivening to follow, and her commentary upon art and literature is illumining. Brief notes on the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, felt even from a distance, add a period flavor.
Mexican Journal is a snapshot of a particular moment in North American life, captured from the perspective of an artist and an outsider who has much that's wise to say about her increasingly less foreign landscape.
'Mexican Journal reminds us of the necessity of darkness in the journey for self-knowledge and purpose. Though at times the journal is heart-wrenching, it provokes a very real and deeply felt sense of wonder.'
'I picked up this book thinking I'd have nothing to relate to within its pages, but I was mistaken: I couldn't put it back down. Then I read it again, and couldn't put it down the second time, either.... Page had a rare talent for capturing someone's essence with just a few sublime sentences. Besides the ability to portray her associates, and the spirit of the times, Page was adept at detailing states of mind.... And that is only Part One. In Part Two, Page writes extensively about the spiritual and mystic practices that she pursued during her stay in Mexico. It's worth reading to encounter her distinct and, in some cases, transcendent observations.