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  • P.K. Page's "Inebriate":A Gloss on a Glosa
  • Robert Lecker (bio)

I am interested in poems about poems. What should we call them? They are obviously a kind of ekphrasis: art that comments on art. But the term ekphrasis is more commonly associated with poems about visual images than it is with poems about poems. In his frequently cited study of ekphrasis, James A.W Heffernan stresses its pictorial focus. He says that ekphrastic literature can be understood as "the verbal representation of graphic representation" (299). It "typically delivers from the pregnant moment of graphic art" what Heffernan calls "its embryonically narrative impulse." Through this kind of narrative deliverance, ekphrastic works "make explicit the story that graphic art tells only by implication" (301). In her commentary on John Ashbery's iconic and ekphrastic "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," Helen Vendler expands the conception of art about art:

in the code language of criticism when a poem is said to be about poetry the word "poetry" is often used to mean many things: how people construct an intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of harmony; how they (to end a list otherwise endless) [End Page 83] achieve what Keats called a "Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity."


In other words, poems about poems are poems about being. They are existential constructs that highlight the means through which identity comes to be known.

Poems about poems can be also be called meta-poems because they are often about the nature of their own construction. They may be seen, in a postmodern context, as self-referential, as figurative works that explore the formal problems inherent in their own conception. When a poem is about another poem, it also becomes a critical vehicle—a gloss—since any commentary on something, whether implicit or explicit, is inextricably a critical act. Yet poems about other poems are relatively rare. In this respect, P.K. Page's two book-length collections of poems about poems are exceptional in their breadth of poetic reference. In 1994 she published Hologram: A Book of Glosas, followed by Coal and Roses in 2009. In both of these books, Page uses the intricate form of the glosa to pay tribute to many of the writers who have influenced her throughout her career.

In her biography of Page, Sandra Djwa explains that "it was Robin Skelton who provided P.K. with the poetic form, the glosa" (273), which was originally used by poets of the Spanish court in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Skelton had urged Marilyn Bowering to write a poem that embodied the glosa's unique structure, described by Page in Hologram as "the opening quatrain written by another poet; followed by four ten-line stanzas, their concluding lines taken consecutively from the quatrain, their sixth and ninth lines rhyming with the borrowed tenth" (9). In response to Skelton's challenge, Bowering produced "Letter from Portugal" and read it at a poetry gathering in Victoria attended by Page and another poet, Patricia Young. Djwa describes Page's response to hearing Bowering's poem through Young's eyes: "she saw 'P.K. almost visibly gasping. As though she couldn't get home fast enough to write a glosa' " (274). By 1993, Page had found a publisher for the book of glosas she had produced over the past two years. Djwa notes that her editor at Brick, Jan Zwicky, "recognized the increasingly powerful cadences of P.K.'s voice and her mastery of the glosa form" (274). Zwicky said that "these poems are so generous, so visionary in their conception, and so exacting in their execution … They're true" (quoted in Djwa 274). Page felt that she had discovered a form that was "powerfully sensed, like an iceberg at night" (Hologram 9).

Hologram contains fourteen glosas, each of which is an homage to another poet. In the foreword, Page writes that "I enjoyed the idea of [End Page 84] writing the poem backwards—the final line...