Approaching P.K. Page’s “Arras"

by Constance Rooke

     “Arras” is masterful, an awesome visionary poem which has sometimes been misunderstood. Page contends here with giant forces, and she will triumph — but if we are to follow her toward that victory, we must not lie deceived as to the nature of our common enemy. The mistake which has been made is to suppose that the peacock or the royal denizens of the arras are finally sinister.1  In fact, they represent the glory (the perfection of human life) which is sought by the poet in “Arras” and throughout her work. Her struggle is to join them, to attain their stature, not to escape or defeat them; and her enemy (like ours) is any impediment to that goal. The imperviousness of those royal figures should not mislead us, for the perceived obstruction is not really of their making. This paper is intended primarily as a corrective lens for any reader who may require it to see why P.K. Page will not surrender her right to a place in the garden.

     Perhaps the difficulty begins with the question of where we are: inside a dream, or looking at a tapestry, or perhaps (especially if we know this much about the poet) at a garden party surrounded by such elegant figures as Page would have encountered in her role as the wife of a diplomat. Indeed these multiple settings coalesce, to account in part for the sense of dislocation. Or the difficulty may begin with the first two lines: “Consider a new habit — classical, / and trees espaliered on the wall like candelabra.”2  We are jarred by this opening, I think — deprived of an easy orientation; presumably we are being asked to enter the arras of the title, an impression which is soon confirmed. But why consider? This may suggest something tentative, possibly an experience which is to be approached cautiously. Yet the original meaning of ‘consider’ is to look closely, so that the first word of the poem can be read as an imperative. Look deeply and come in, the poet says. We consider a “habit” — the fabric of the arras and a habit of mind, which is “new” in the sense of being revolutionary or consciousness-altering, but also “classical” and so antique, formal, and enduring. We shall enter, accordingly, a world which is always there for us and seldom known.

     Still on the verge of the arras, we see “trees espaliered on the wall like candelabra.” The flatness of the arras is changing as the tree tendrils (branches of the candelabra) reach out into our space and draw us forth. In the next line we are magically within the arras: “How still upon that lawn our sandalled feet.” We feel the cushion of grass, and tread lightly — for we are spirits and unsure of welcome. So far it has been our feet — the poet seemingly had us consider — but for the rest of the poem she forgets us, having other and more urgent claims on her attention. We are with her or not, in soft focus. It is also possible that she summons only herself to the arras world and that “our sandalled feet” belong to dissociated halves of the poet’s self, one from the realm of here and one from there. Or she may approach with other guests, if we conceive of the primary setting as a garden which is seen as two dimensional like an arras.

     An impression of stillness is suddenly dispersed by the raucous cry of an intruder who is considerably less circumspect than the poet:

But a peacock rattan his rattan tail and screaming
has found a point of entry. Through whose eye
did it insinuate in furled disguise
to shake its jewels and silk upon that grass?

In one sense, this peacock (who enters almost simultaneously with the poet) is another version of herself; thus we discover later that it was her eye which summoned him. This dissociation is characteristic of dreams and a function of the dreamer’s anxiety. She fears that the peacock’s noise will rouse the legitimate inhabitant of the arras and cause them to eject her, so she denies this royal and rampaging alter-ego. Soon the poet will discover that her strategy is a mistake, her fear misdirected. The peacock’s mode of entry is correct; she needs more rather than less of the peacock in herself, and so she will end the poem with summoning more birds to the arras.

     This king of birds who heralds their mutual arrival is described by the poet with a scarcely concealed sense of jubilation. Two contexts merge: the natural behaviour of the peacock, whose tail is linear when folded, who shakes himself violently in order to unfurl that sudden splendour; and the method of tapestry-making, whereby a linear needle pierces the fabric at “a point of entry” to insert the sinuous coloured thread which is in the needle’s “eye.” Just as suddenly as we have entered the two-dimensional arras, so miraculously does one stitch suffice to create the entire peacocks echo of his transformation when the tail lifts. The peacock is disguised and insinuates himself into the garden; this diction has understandably had satanic associations for some readers, but the real splendour of the peacock and the total meaning of the poem should contradict that reading. The garden is “classical,” after all — not biblical. The language of deception (which clashes with the peacock’s self-insistent scream) comes mainly from the speaker’s own insecurity, and it is therefore significant that she will re-describe the peacock’s entry in very different terms somewhat later in the poem. A further meaning of this disguise relates to the subtlety not of devils, but of poets. It is enough for now that we should note how very appropriately this peacock (with “its jewels and silk”) is dressed for the occasion. He is precisely the sort of being (like a unicorn or hart) whom we might expect in this tapestried world; he is also a monarch returning from exile, a guest handsomely attired.

     The shifts in “Arras” are abrupt, as in dreams or drum line movies. The peacock who had so troubled the poet is not mentioned again for some time. She backs up from (represses and denies) this too strong image, and looks for safety: “The peaches hang like lanterns. No one joins / those figures on the arras.” The stillness has resumed, and the poet is separate from “those figures” who are mentioned now for the first time. Peaches are often espaliered, trained to grow against a flat surface; for that reason and because they “hang like lanterns,” they remind us of the candelabra and make us feel the poet has retraced her steps. The peaches are heavy, softly glowing lamps which cast a portentous light—but they are not, except inconsequentially, I think, the apples of a fallen Eden. And who is this no one? Neither the temporarily banished peacock nor any part of the poet’s self nor any other guests who may be present have joined “those figures on the arras” — who seem inviolate, another race of beings. But they are figures, while the others are no one, invisible and unrealized.

    In the next lines, the poet moves again within her aura of invisibility:

                                     Who am I
or who am I become that walking here
I am observer, other, Gemini,
starred for a green garden of cinema?

As in the passage through a dream one’s identity may be fluid, so here the poet questions who she is and feels herself becoming “other.” This division can be seen as a process of growth as well as of alienation. The “other” which she becomes is “Gemini,” the sign of the zodiac which is opposite to Sagittarius, Page’s own sign; but fortunately that information is not vital, for “Gemini” itself conveys the sense of a divided person — divided and also doubled, so that the poet can move beyond the limits of a single subjectivity. The sense of division as alienation is enforced by the words “observer” and “other,” which should be recalled when we come to assess the aloof quality of “those figures” and to determine who is responsible for their distance from the poet. She is not yet at home within the arras world. She is uncertain of her role, though in the language of astrology they she is “starred” (fated) to come here. Dream-like, the co-ordinates shift to the language of film as the poet thinks she is “starred for a green garden of cinema.” The controlling analogy is between dreams and movies, in which roles and scenes may shift as the camera or the dreamer’s eye moves on. The dreamer may be reduced from star to hanger-on if her courage fails; she may be cast as extra or as victim or as heroine at different times, for she is partly the author or director of her dream and partly an actor without contract or knowledge of the script.

     If this analogy has been understood, the next lines will be less puzzling to the reader:

I ask, what did they deal me in this pack?
The cards, all suits, are royal when I look.
My fingers slipping on a monarch’s face
twitch and grow slack.
I want a hand to clutch, a heart to crack.

There is a submerged link here between astrology and the tarot pack, although “this pack” is essentially the ordinary one which runs from deuce to ace — with the crucial, dream-induced difference that “the cards, all suits, are royal when I look.” We may also begin to feel that “Arras” is a looking-glass, with the poet cast as Alice encountering the fearful Queen of Hearts. The dreamer’s plot, in any case, has taken what is also for her a disconcerting turn: “I ask, what did they deal me in this pack?” Contained in this line is a sense of powerlessness, of there being someone else in charge of the poet’s fate — the deck has been stacked, and perhaps against her. Yet surely a hand composed entirely of face cards would be a winning hand?

     The appropriate response to all this royalty can be guaged if one looks at an essay called “The Sense of Angels,” in which P.K Page writes about her friend A.M. Klein. There she recalls a poem of Klein’s which “remind [ed her] that man is royal even when he forgets he is in the unreality (unroyality — it is the same word) of day to day.”3  All suits, all kinds of human beings, are royal when we look deeply enough. And the world of “Arras” is precisely the real or royal world which underlies the ordinary, which abides on the other side of the looking-glass. It is a fascinating coincidence that Page’s essay about Klein begins with the elaborate description of a garden party in Brazil, where her husband was the Canadian ambassador and where Page first heard the news of Klein’s grave illness. Her memories of Klein talking in a Montreal kitchen and wearing an ordinary dark suit are juxtaposed against the “colored silks and satins, diamonds, pearls” which surround her in the Brazilian garden; but the opposition between two worlds is less meaningful than the fact that these present images, “straight out of the Arabian Nights, [are] worthy of Klein’s most elaborate metaphors.”4   Klein’s liberal imagination, that is, led him with P.K. Page to perceive the world of our forgotten royality.

     So the hand which the poet has been dealt in “Arras” is indeed a winning hand, although she has yet to understand fully the design of her dream or the nature of “those figures” or herself. The cards, she finds, are “royal when I look.” These last three words do more than fill the line. Only when she looks do they become royal; previously the fact of royalty was beyond the range of her perception, but now the camera’s or the dreamer’s eye has fled on the essential truth. Yet the figures which were remote on the arras are still remote, even as she holds them card-like in her hand: they are flat as cards are, two-dimensional like the arras before that is penetrated. The perception of royalty has nevertheless had a powerful effect on the poet, causing her to come this much closer to the figures and to wish that she might come closer still, and at the same time making her afraid of so much majesty. Thus, her fingers slip, “twitch and grow slack” as the poet loses faith in her ability to connect with (to become herself) this ideal image of humanity. We note that it is her fingers which lose their grip on the royal figures, although what she feels is more nearly a lack of cooperation on their part: “I want a hand to clutch, a heart to crack.” She wants reciprocity, help from the figures whom she perceives as flat and who are therefore unable to reach out to her. Their heartlessness is only an appearance which it is the poet’s task to penetrate, but the reason for this appearance needs further investigation.

     It is at this juncture that the poet’s experience with formal occasions such as the one she described in “The Sense of Angels” may become relevant. In the garden of “Arras” we find the perfected human beings of our dreams, figures so truly exalted that the poet will need to spend her life in the effort of understanding them and attaining their stature. Yet because her vision of them is still imperfect and because dreams are fashioned of such strange comminglings, these figures have been confused with their opposites: fallen beings whom we find in everyday (albeit expensive) gardens, pretending to an exalted condition although their exercise of vision has been so slight that they are unaffected by what the poet sees even now. The poet’s everyday frustration with unseeing others becomes in the dream world of “Arras” frustration at her own limited capacity for vision, which she projects on “those figures” so that they become as heartless and unseeing as the pretentious hosts of a garden party. But the truest explanation of their imperviousness is simply that these figures represent the poet’s ideal self, from which she will remain distant (and who will remain distant from her) until the journey is complete.

     In the next lines, we are again returned to stillness. There has been another dissolve of a threatening image, another retreat to the verge of the arras:

No one is moving now, the stillness is
infinite. If I should make a break. . . .
take to my springy heels. . . . ?
But nothing moves.
The spinning world is stuck upon its poles,
the stillness points a bone at me. I fear
the future on this arras.

At this nadir the poet is afraid not of being expelled from the garden, but of dying there. She contemplates withdrawal of vision, recalling in the reference to her “springy heels” the transitional moment when on “sandalled feet” she had stepped into the arras. She despairs at having come thus far, and then no farther in her journey; at such a stopping place “the spinning world is stuck upon its poles.” Without the recognition she requires from those royal figures, the poet feels condemned to a living death; it seems less horrible to retreat into the ordinary world than to stay here and be mocked eternally by the evidence of her presumption. But the possibility of an exit seems blocked by the infinite stillness. There is a loss of dimension as “the spinning world is stuck upon its poles,” reduced to the flat surface of an imprisoning arras. And now “the stillness points a bone” at the poet, accusing her of trespass (because she has not established her right to a place in the garden) and of presumptuous vision (because paradoxically her vision did not reach far enough). The pointing of a bone is an aboriginal hex which brings death to the accused. Significantly it is “the stillness” which condemns her, the stillness which is what she fears as her “future on this arras.”

    But here the world begins to spin again, as the poet speaks to defy the hex: “I confess: / It was my eye.” Faced with the alternative of a spiritual death, she finds new courage and rises phoenix-like to claim the peacock as her own creation. This is less a confession than a cry of intended victory, a return to the ordeal of vision. She describes again the arrival of the peacock, but in nakedly impassioned language now, acknowledging her eye’s complicity and love:

Voluptuous it came.
Its head the ferrule and its lovely tail
folded so sweetly; it was strangely slim
to fit the retina. And then it shook
and was a peacock — living patina,
eye-bright, maculate!
Does no one care?

In the spinning world, the bone of death has been magically transformed into a phallus of love — as if it had boomeranged through the air from her accuser to the poet. Everything here is erotically charged, as if the poet would reply unashamedly (and unlike Eve) and with all the edgy at her command to the accusation which has been made against her. Thus, the peacock’s coming is “voluptuous,” its head is “the ferrule” or the penis tip, and its lovely, sweetly folded tail is “strangely slim” to enter the poet’s body. Vision and love are equated, so that the peacock (gloriously male) enters both arras and woman through the poet’s eye: “it was strangely slim / to fit the retina.” At the moment of orgasm or transformation, the lovers are realized: “it shook / and was a peacock.” And they are royalized. The poet has seen and loved and been and made the peacock; this is her answer to the stillness, her proof that she is legitimate inhabitant of this realm where all “are royal when I look.”

     The peacock is now fully displayed: “living patina, / eye-bright, maculate!” Art springs to life in the wonder of “living patina,” as if to claim the durability of the poet’s vision. The many eyes of the peacock’s tail connect him with the poet’s eye and indicate the cosmic plenitude at which always she directs her gaze. The word “maculate,” meaning spotted, refers again to the many eyes — but recalls also its opposite, immaculate, in the spinning world of which this bird is justly king. Surely this triumph will be acknowledged? In the next line we come to the poet’s heart’s-cry, her astonishment that such splendour does not revolutionize the world: “Does no one care?” Again we must ask who this “no one” is, for on at least one previous occasion “no one” was clearly not “those figures.” I would argue that the poet’s cry resounds throughout the arras world like the peacock’s scream to shatter our composure first of all, and that it is directed to the royal figures only secondarily. For them it means something rather different: not that these perfected beings are incapable (as we may seem) of appreciating the peacock, but that she had hoped this image would be enough to close the gap between herself and them. Perhaps also her cry returns the poet briefly to a fallen world outside the arras, so that the royal figures have become for the duration of her cry their shadow selves — the denizens of an ordinary garden.

     In the final lines of the poem we hear the poet’s sorrow that her journey is unfinished and her renewed, passionate determination to reach that goal:

I thought their hands might hold me if I spoke.
I dreamed the bite of fingers in my flesh,
their poke smashed by an image, but they stand
as if within a treacle, motionless,
folding slow eyes on nothing.
While they stare
another line has trolled the encircling air,
another bird assumes its furled disguise.

Her strategy is now explained. If she spoke, in a poem summoned up an image like this miraculous and hex-defying peacock as a proof of vision, she thought “their hands might hold me.” The peacock was her claim on them, her way of getting “a hand to clutch, a heart to crack.” But it was not enough, as no single poem or feat of vision can be enough to satisfy us finally. We may dream of that ultimate attainment, as the poet here “dreamed the bite of fingers” in her flesh and dreamed that she could smash “their poke” (dissolve that last barrier) with an image, but the rhythm of our lives is such that we awake from dreams and must repeat their labour. Progress can be made, however; and so the violence of the poet’s imagery in these lines suggests both the momentum of her desire and the frustration which comes from her proximity to the object of that desire. She sees them, maddeningly close — but “as if within a treacle, motionless, / folding slow eyes on nothing.” They see nothing without because all is within, the whole spinning world. The poet’s determination to persevere and at last to enter that perfect sphere is revealed when she solicits from “the encircling air” another secret agent. She summons another line, another bird. She will not quit the arras. It is a splendid ending, a statement that there will be no ending but success.

     The reading of “Arras” which has been offered here is consistent with the rest of the poet’s work, as any reading which sees her beloved peacock or the royal figures as sinister I think is not. But if any doubt remains concerning the nature of those impervious beings, perhaps the best way of dispelling it is to look briefly at “Another Space” — a less difficult, equally brilliant poem which resembles “Arras” in several ways and confirms its meaning. Here again the poet encounters a circle of strange beings who extend (still further now) her sense of space: “I see them there in three dimensions yet / their height implies another space.”5   She is drawn always closer to them, for this poem describes a dream of joy and is not subject to the withdrawals we have known in daylight and in “Arras.” These beings are not hostile to the poet, yet the moment of their union with her is accomplished by an arrow (related to the peacock and the aboriginal bone of “Arras”) which is shot by “the headman”:

to strike the absolute centre of my skull
my absolute centre somehow
with such skill
such staggering lightness
that the blow is love.

As in “Arras” the poets desire to “smash” and “crack” the figures with her peacock-arrow in fact expressed her will to love them, as the bone became a phallus — so here “the blow is love.” It suffices now to dissolve the last barrier, Which is correctly perceived as surrounding not those figures but ourselves:

And something in me melts.
It is as if a glass partition melts —
or something I had always thought was glass —
some pane that halved my heart
is proved, in its melting, ice.

And to-fro all the atoms pass
in bright osmosis
in stasis locked
where now a new
direction opens like an eye.

P.K. Page arrives at the “bright” reciprocity, the end of “stasis locked,” and the triumph of vision for which she worked so valiantly in “Arras.” Heartwhole, no longer “Gemini”—she has left for now the pain of subjectivity behind. For now, but not forever yet. When the dreamer wakes, she will be glad of peacocks waiting for the next attempt.


  1. See A.J.M. Smith, “The Poetry of P.K. Page,” Canadian Literature (No. 50, Autumn 1971), p. 28; S. Namjoshi, “Double Landscape,” Canadian Literature (No. 67, winter 1976), p. 27; and D.G. Jones Butterfly on Rock (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), p. 17.[back]

  2. P.K. Page, “Arras,” Poems Selected and New (Toronto: Anansi, 1974), p. 104.[back]

  3. P.K. Page, “The Sense of Angels,” Dialog, (Passover, 1973), p. 19.[back]

  4. Ibid., p. 18.[back]

  5. Another Space.” Poems Selected and New, p. 148.[back]