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Essay

Zachariah Wells on P.K. Page's "The Mole"

(How Poems Work, February 2004)
At 60 words, including title, “The Mole”; exemplifies poetry’s potential for compression. On the surface, this is a simple bit of verse, a brief encomium to an unlikely animal hero, but P.K. Page invests the mole’s activities with a significance that compels the reader to unearth deeper layers of meaning.
In the first line, Page employs language that pushes the reader beyond the literal sense of the poem. Instead of a simple “tunnel,” “[t]he mole goes down the slow dark personal passage.” This metaphor–its archetypal status reinforced by the definite article “the,” instead of the less specific “a” binds the mole to other travellers in the physical world and the less tangible realms of psyche and language (“passage” connoting a means of transit, a segment of text and, encompassing all possible meanings, life’s journey). Thus, the mole is a stand-in for the poet/artist, who navigates a solitary life in the midst of others with the help of language and imagination; or, less specifically, for anyone who struggles to understand their personal place in the often unfathomable darkness of the world….

At 60 words, including title, “The Mole” exemplifies poetry’s potential for compression. On the surface, this is a simple bit of verse, a brief encomium to an unlikely animal hero, but P.K. Page invests the mole’s activities with a significance that compels the reader to unearth deeper layers of meaning.

In the first line, Page employs language that pushes the reader beyond the literal sense of the poem. Instead of a simple “tunnel,” “[t]he mole goes down the slow dark personal passage.” This metaphor—its archetypal status reinforced by the definite article “the,” instead of the less specific “a”—binds the mole to other travellers in the physical world and the less tangible realms of psyche and language (“passage” connoting a means of transit, a segment of text and, encompassing all possible meanings, life’s journey). Thus, the mole is a stand-in for the poet/artist, who navigates a solitary life in the midst of others with the help of language and imagination; or, less specifically, for anyone who struggles to understand their personal place in the often unfathomable darkness of the world.

At 60 words, including title, “The Mole” exemplifies poetry’s potential for compression. On the surface, this is a simple bit of verse, a brief encomium to an unlikely animal hero, but P.K. Page invests the mole’s activities with a significance that compels the reader to unearth deeper layers of meaning.

In the first line, Page employs language that pushes the reader beyond the literal sense of the poem. Instead of a simple “tunnel,” “[t]he mole goes down the slow dark personal passage.” This metaphor—its archetypal status reinforced by the definite article “the,” instead of the less specific “a”—binds the mole to other travellers in the physical world and the less tangible realms of psyche and language (“passage” connoting a means of transit, a segment of text and, encompassing all possible meanings, life’s journey). Thus, the mole is a stand-in for the poet/artist, who navigates a solitary life in the midst of others with the help of language and imagination; or, less specifically, for anyone who struggles to understand their personal place in the often unfathomable darkness of the world.

Page expands on the existential dimension of the mole’s travels and travails in the second stanza. As a “specialist,” the mole is confirmed as a colleague of the artist. Instead of following paths mapped out for him—instead, even, of following Frost’s road “less traveled by”—the mole “opens his own doors; digs as he needs them/his tubular alleyways.” “Alleyways” is another critical word choice, emphasizing as it does that the scouting enacted by mole and artist must be undertaken not on public highways and boulevards but in back lanes, more intimate to the private lives of individuals, families and communities.

The poem’s close forges a final link between poet and mole. Page subverts and revalues an old, well-worn idiomatic phrase (to make a mountain out of a molehill), thereby giving it fresh currency. The poet is one who renders the old new; who makes familiar or seemingly insignificant phrases and objects (like moles and their hills) strange and fraught with importance; who brings the buried into plain view. In short, one of the poet’s tasks is to make mountains of molehills.

Readings such as the one I’ve provided above are not at all necessary for an appreciation of this poem. It succeeds by simple virtue of its vivid descriptions of an actual mole’s daily grind. P.K. Page, besides being widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s best poets, is known for her work in the visual arts, and her painter’s eye for detail is evident here. In calling him—significant that the mole is “him,” rather than “it”—“a haberdasher’s sample of wet velvet moving,” Page picks up the physical mole and places him in front of the reader, so that we can practically stroke the glossy nap of the animal’s fur. The word “metaphor” literally means “a carrying over,” and this is precisely what Page accomplishes here. Like other adepts of the animal poem, such as Ted Hughes and John Clare, Page does not deprive the animal of an individual life in order to depict it as an anthropomorphic trope. The reader can identify with the mole in a complex manner; can see all life on this planet as worthy of notice on its own terms as well as in ours.