Borrowed Rooms
by Barbara Pelman

Ronsdale Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-55380-061-3.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 08/22/2009


Barbara Pelman and I both live on Vancouver Island where both of us benefit from island life that has a thriving community of poets. Our paths have crossed at readings and at a master poets' retreat with our mentor, acclaimed poet Patrick Lane. Pelman has a beautiful reading voice and although you may not be able to hear her read her own poems, you can read them out loud yourself. Poems are best enjoyed that way.

One of them, "Ghost," evolved from a Patrick Lane exercise in which poets were to use "details alone to express theme, tone and story." Pelman uses a couple of lines by poet Linda Gregg to begin "Ghost": "I could be the host of my own life returning/to the places I lived best." The lines aptly describe the subject of Pelman's poems in terms of places but especially when it comes to her personal relationships with her ex-husband, her father who has passed away, and her daughter. The details are things Pelman remembers from a cottage she shared with her ex-husband, among them a red bowl with "unpocketed quarters and dimes" and "two Adirondack chairs."

The details in "Ghost" and in all of Pelman's finely crafted poems are exquisite and painful, as so many of them are the things, no longer with the people attached, except in the poet's memory. In one poem about the "divorce papers," Pelman describes her situation as "a landscape you have lost." All these details and memories allow the reader to recall her own stories and that's the magic of poetry. It becomes something new when experienced by someone else.

Hotels are among Pelman's "borrowed rooms" and one of them is "The Perfect Hotel." She describes time there as "a distant thing" and in the end "it is the sea/drifting into sky/a no point in the centre/where you know you have been and are no longer." Beautifully nuanced—and to me, the epitome of the theme of this collection.

As one reviewer has said of Pelman, she "has excelled in mastering form poems, especially sonnets and pantoums." One of the forms she has mastered is a fugue. In "Walk On, a fugue," themes are repeated so that meaning is heightened with the use of repetition. "Perilous" is one of the words Pelman repeats in the poem, using it to describe her daughter as a toddler, inside and then beyond the crib, and in the end it is the mother's love that is fearful: "my perilous love: cribbed and almost silent." The poet's insight and her finely crafted poems, such as this one, are a joy to behold.

There is reluctance on the part of the poet to enter into brand new relationships, like the hummingbird hovering in the air. There is also faith and hopefulness. I recommend that you read the book and savor it. I will do so also, again.

Barbara Pelman taught English at high school and college before she retired. She is an acative participant in the Victoria, British Columbia writing community as a member of the Random Acts of Poetry team, a regular reader at Planet Earth Poetry, and the instigator of Victoria's "Poetry Walls", created by her students. Her first book of poetry was One Stone, published in 2005 by Ekstasis Editions. Read more about her on The Writers Union of Canada website and the League of Canadian Poets website.

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