Essays

The Non-Identity of the Permanent Tourists

In The Permanent Tourists, P.K. Page explores the contradictory identity of those without identity. The very title, “The Permanent Tourists”, suggests the irony of their situation. As permanent tourists, they are in constant juxtaposition against the “foreign cities”, continually being relegated to the Other. Hence, their permanence stems from their transient and alien status as “tourists”. Their identity is non-identity. Such a quandary is at the crux of the poem, and Page seeks to explain the motivations and actions of the tourists.

The tourists are only referred to directly as a collective noun once in the entire poem, in the first stanza: “the terrible tourists with their empty eyes” (Page 4). The tourists only become tourists when they are placed in juxtaposition against an urban destination, “they alter as they enter foreign cities — / the terrible tourists” (Page 3-4). Before arriving, they are not yet tourists. They are innominate, “nondescript, almost anonymous” (Page 2). Crucially, this takes place in nature, “through landscape and by trees” (Page 1). It is only upon arriving at human civilization, are they filled with a terrible compulsion to assume the identity of their surroundings, “longing to be filled with monuments” (Page 5).

The subsequent four stanzas describe the tourist’ various efforts to absorb the identity of the city into their own. Importantly, Page only refers to the tourists through third-person pronouns.  This serves to emphasize their search for and lack of identity—at this point, they are no longer tourists, but neither are they given another identity. They exist in an in-between state, their identity being a lack of identity. This lack of identity is most obvious in the fourth stanza, where the predicate of the various landmarks are described, but the subject of the tourists is completely missing.

The tourists believe the city can provide an identity, “remembering the promise of memorials” (Page 6). A memorial is a memento, in effect a physical manifestation of identity.

On the surface, it seems like Page is criticizing the tourists’ superficial actions. The tourists seek to assume the identity of the memorial through transient association, taking fleeting pictures in the hope that it “might later conjure in the memory / all they are now incapable of feeling” (Page 14-15).Yet the memorials are revealed to be incapable of memorializing in the fourth stanza as the figures of the monuments are forgotten, “forgotten politicians minus names” (Page 18). Interestingly, it is death that grants the figures permanence: “the plunging war dead, permanently brave, / forever and ever going down to death” (Page 19-20).This marks the first time “permanent” is used in the actual text of the poem, reflected its use in the title. Page subtly implies that only negation is eternal—all presence must fade, hence only the Other remains.

The fifth stanza acknowledges the presence of the reader: “Look, you can see them nude in any café” (Page 21). By inserting the reader and with the imperative, “Look”, Page is demanding that the reader form an opinion. The reader is heavily influenced by the aphorism at the end of the fifth stanza, “Philosophies likes ferns bloom from the fable / that travel is broadening at the café table” (Page 24-25).Page takes special care to emphasize the couplet through manipulating its syllabic stresses and rhyme. The first line consists of five iambs and an unstressed syllable and the last line consists of six iambs and an unstressed syllable, giving the two lines a natural affinity. Furthermore, “fable”, “café” and “table” all share feminine rhymes in their first syllables. Page exerts so much effort to give the aphorism a sense of finality in condemning the tourists’ motivations and actions.

This is however reversed in the final stanza, as evidenced by the contrasting conjunction, “Yet somehow beautiful, they stamp the plaza” (Page 26). Despite Page seemingly reproaching the tourists, she still finds some beauty in them. The poem ends with an image of tranquility, “as rivers / draw ruined columns to their placid glass.” The monuments will eventually fade into the nature that opens the poem. Only negation is permanent, and in that sense, the permanent tourists’ non-identity grants them the very immortality and identity they seek.

In the end, Page does not truly condemn the tourists. Page never condescends their emotions, only their actions. After all, there is a sense of universality and sincerity in the tourists’ desire for identity, “Classic in their anxiety” (Page 27). Indeed, The Permanent Tourist can be read as a commentary of humanity in general, and the institutions—be it politics, religion, nationalism—that we seek in trying to create an identity and enduring meaning.

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