Essays

Arras: An Unknowable Mystery

P.K. Page’s “Arras” is set in a strange dimension, filled with screaming peacocks and shadowy figures, where the persona seeks answers and meaning. However, Page had designed “Arras” to be an unknowable mystery. It is deliberately beyond human comprehension, without answers. Page uses the persona to show humanity’s desire to impose human meaning in everything. In imposing meaning where none exists, the persona only further alienates herself.

From the first, Page hides the poem’s true elusive and equivocal nature. Page opens the poem with an imperative to create the setting, “Consider a new habit—classical” (1). The pre-modifier “new” suggests a neutrality and homogeneity, hence the em dash into “classical”. But a more sophisticated analysis of the first line is possible, one that accounts for multiple interpretations. “Consider” and “habit” both have mental and physical definitions which greatly varies the setting’s origin and nature. “Consider” can mean to mentally think, which means the habit is conceived, or it can mean to physically view, which means the habit already exists. “Habit” can mean the mental behavior, which means the setting is mental, or it can mean the physical garment, which means the setting is physical. The explicit classicalism of the habit is a red herring: in reality, the very origin and nature of the habit is unclear and unknowable.

This is a secret the persona is not wholly privy to. There are clues— if the habit is indeed homogenous, why is it described with such an ill-fitted simile? “Trees espaliered on the wall like candelabra” (2).Page subtly inserts the ornateness and artificiality of a candelabra to undermine the natural classicalism of the habit, and suggest its true unknowable and paradoxical nature.

It is based on the persona’s misunderstanding of the habit that the peacock appears. At first, the peacock is a mystery. It is clearly a disruption in the habit, the explicit shrillness of the peacock is reflected in the onomatopoeic alliteration of its description, “rattling his rattan tail” (Page 4). The peacock represents the persona’s perception. It is a manifestation of the persona’s desire to define and understand the unknowable habit. However, the persona does not yet understand her mistake, and hence, does not know the purpose of the peacock.

Despite the persona’s attempted mastery of the habit, the habit does not respond—it is, after all, beyond human comprehension. In the second stanza, Page uses light and shadow imagery to reiterate the habit’s inexplicable nature. The luminescent peaches gives the arras an alien unfamiliarity, while also serving to emphasize the mysterious figures on the arras that are shrouded in darkness. The alien scope of the habit finally begins to dawn on the persona. The persona realizes that she has no place here, despite her peacock, and this triggers an identity crisis. This is reflected in the typography of the poem, as Page utilizes indentation to quarantine and emphasize the persona’s lack of meaning and identity: “Who am I” (10). Crucially, it is only through interacting with the mysterious habit that triggers the persona’s identity crisis, “who am I become that walking here / I am observer, other, Gemini” (Page 11-12).

Mysticism and mystery are combined as Page infuses the poem with an astrological esotericism that is sustained in stanza three, which uses an extended metaphor in the form of a pack of cards to emphasize the habit’s otherworldliness and the persona’s alienation. To a similar effect, stanza four sees the persona explicitly articulate her isolation and the unknowable paradox of the habit: a “spinning world” where “the stillness is infinite” (Page 22, 19-20).

Page’s emphasis on rhetorical questions throughout the poem cannot be overstated. From the first stanza, the persona searches for answers on the nature of the habit and the elements within it. Only one questioned is answered. Having acknowledged the unknowable mystery of the habit, the persona gleans some truth. Against the increasingly hostile landscape, Page’s persona realizes the origin of the peacock: “I confess: / It was my eye” (25-26).This is the crucial denouement of the poem. Presuming the habit to be natural and classical, the persona inserts the artificial peacock to assert her own humanity and identity. Indeed, the penultimate stanza describes the bird through an industrial lexicon: ferrule, patina, maculate. But the peacock has no effect, for the habit is beyond natural or artificial definitions. “Does no one care?” cries the persona (Page 23).

The final stanza brings the persona, the figures and the peacock together. Crucially, the habit and the figures never actually threaten the persona—it is only in her mind, “I thought their hands might hold me if I spoke” (Page 34). The habit and the figures are ultimately unconcerned with the persona or humanity, “folding slow eyes on nothing” (Page 38).  They are unknowable mysteries; Page has created a space outside of humanity in “Arras” that escapes explanations. Whether the persona learns anything in the end is questionable as more birds begin to appear ominously, like vultures circling a carcass. To seek an answer to “Arras” is to invite another inconsequential peacock that will only create grief for the seeker.

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