Narrow Bridge
by Barbara Pelman

Ronsdale Press, 2017. ISBN ISBN 978-1-553-80508-3.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 06/08/2018


It was such a delight to dip into Narrow Bridge to read the poems of Barbara Pelman in this, her third collection. I then went back to the beginning to read all the poems in order, savoring this exploration of bridges, both real and metaphoric.

Her poem, "Known and Strange Things," begins with four lines from "Postscript" by Seamus Heaney to create a glosa. (Each of the four ten-line stanzas of Pelman's poem end with a line from Heaney's quatrain.) In Pelman's poem, the narrator describes a woman at a cafe where "you" live as the "you" in the poem remembers trains and planes that took her to "Amsterdam or Malmo, Stockholm or Rome." The last line of the first stanza is Heaney's: "You are neither here nor there." The narrator continues, in the second stanza, "not in Sweden with your family, / nor fully here, at this cafe..."

Many readers will relate to this sometimes excruciating tension of being in one place while longing for family members who live far away.

Readers may also, as I did, relate to the questions posed as we age, such as (in "Known and Strange Things"): "What do you want, at this tail end of your life. / What is still possible?"

The first poem in the collection, "Gentle Reader," is based on the painting by Karen Hollingsworth and includes a question, too. It has a tone of melancholia as the narrator connects to the painting's subject and her sorrow as she asks: "where can you be that fills you up again and again?"

There are gorgeous details in Pelman's poems as in "Bowl of Light," in which a bowl (described as different shades of blue, including "forget-me-not blue") holds many memories. It also contains emptiness, as the narrator holds the bowl in both hands to "offer its emptiness to the morning sun . . . "

In "Suitcase in the Closet," the narrator imagines Argentina and Greece while at home alone, where she will "stretch out in the wide bed. One pillow is enough." There are rich memories and even freedom in her solitude and much loss and loneliness too.

The final line of "Cafe" divulges some insight into the poet's experience: "Death and loss, the pendulum of every poem."

Barbara Pelman's poems offer so much to appreciate and to contemplate in their blending of memories and longing with the courage it takes to lay those memories bare.

Barbara Pelman is a poet and a retired English teacher who has taught at high schools and universities. She has two previous books of poetry: One Stone (Ekstasis Editions, 2005) and Borrowed Rooms (Ronsdale Press, 2009). See the review here. She also has a chapbook, Aubade Amalfi (Rubicon Press, 2016). Pelman is a frequent visitor to Sweden, where her family now lives. She makes her home in Victoria, British Columbia.

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