Barbara Pelman (photo from Word Vancouver)
Among the writers being featured at this year’s Word Vancouver, which runs Sept. 26-30, is Victoria-based poet Barbara Pelman.
Pelman’s latest collection, narrow bridge (Ronsdale Press, 2017), is her third book of poetry. Its title comes from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s famous advice (at least in Jewish circles): “All the world is a narrow bridge – the important thing is not to be afraid at all.” Other than in one poem, however, called “Öresund,” where she tells herself, “I will not fear,” Pelman doesn’t come across in her writing as fearful.
“I’m delighted that I don’t come across as fearful,” Pelman told the Independent, “as I am full of fear, and certainly before each visit to my family in Sweden, I imagined everything that could go wrong and how incompetent I am. And was amazed that I survived intact.
“Generally, I tend to be a worrier (‘a misuse of the imagination’) but fight this negativity all the time. The tension, which I hope comes across, is between a general optimism and belief that, ‘in the long run’ … things sort themselves out. So, I tend to take on things that might terrify me, like art classes or solo trips to Berlin or train rides through Europe, and sign up, so there’s no going back. Not, however, bungee jumping or skydiving.
“When I have to deal with adversity – a separation and divorce, primarily – I talk and I write,” she said. “Both are clarifying agents. The poems in this book put forward a lot of my difficulty in being in the present, without wishing to be elsewhere. As in the first poem, ‘Gentle Reader’ – the desire to desire only what you have, and not what is somewhere else.”
On the family front, at least, Pelman’s journeys have become shorter since the book was published. Her daughter, who had been living in Sweden for three years, moved to Vancouver this summer, meaning that Pelman’s grandson is also now that much closer. He features in more than one poem – “Still Life with a Small Boy” is especially poignant. In it, he and his bubby, Pelman, are out having a hot chocolate and croissant. “Heads together, bending into each other. / They are a world. Outside, the world breaks. / She cannot read the news while she is with him, / tries to be calm, listen while he tells her / his new red bike helmet makes him safe.”
The collection is divided into three sections and includes some poems that Pelman has published before. Her previous books of poetry are One Stone (Ekstasis Editions, 2005) and Borrowed Rooms (Ronsdale Press, 2008), and she also has produced a chapbook, Aubade Amalfi: The Marcello Poems (Rubicon Press, 2016).
“This book had three iterations, each time being sent back by the publisher with suggestions – too much of Marcello and the adorable grandson, for example,” she said of the decision-making process for what would make it into narrow bridge. “So, I rejigged the poems, took out a lot of them, put in more recent ones, and relied on Russell [Thorburn] to put them in order. He sees an organic pattern of the poems, sometimes based on image or theme. I trust his choices, only changed a few.”
The poems in narrow bridge include many with Jewish themes.
“Most of my childhood centred around the synagogue, not in a hugely observant fashion, but, as my father was choir leader at the Beth Israel, I often went to services with him,” Pelman said about the place of Judaism and Jewish culture in guiding her work or approach to life. “Now, as a member of Congregation Emanu-El [in Victoria] and ‘den mother’ for the Calling All Artists project, I am interested and involved in learning Hebrew, chanting Haftorah, and generally intrigued by the culture and traditions of an ancient people.
“Moreover, and this is what I think is really wonderful, poetry and study of Torah have many similarities. Hebrew is a language that I think is embedded in metaphor, and studying Torah is the kind of layering analysis that I am used to in studying poetry. Layer upon layer of meaning and ambiguity. Rabbi Harry Brechner considers art as ‘mishnah’: another way to interpret, to find meaning that is relevant to us personally and globally.”
In narrow bridge, Pelman explores kabbalistic ideas, her own family history and relationships, as well as biblical ones (the poem “Isaac” is powerfully evocative). In at least two poems, she explores the concept of “thisness” – notably in the poem of that name, where, she writes, “Happiness, fed from detail: the thisness of things, / resting in the eye of the beetle, the creak of the board / she leans against, the cold air pricking her ears.” And several poems have to do with the spaces or pauses between, for example, a heartbeat or a pendulum’s swing; those moments that happen all the time but that we rarely acknowledge or even notice.
Aging features prominently, as well. And, while some poems are wistful – such as “Suitcase in the Closet,” where recollections of past travel suffice – others are almost calls to arms. “A woman over seventy should open her travel account, / run her fingers over the globe, and choose / She should trade her sensible shoes for sandals, / her Gucci bag for backpack, her datebook for weather reports,” begins the poem “Go,” a favourite in this collection, though this reader is still a couple of decades shy of 70.
As for how her style or subject matter has changed since her first collection, Pelman said, “I have continued to work with various poets in workshops and retreats, and continue to learn a great deal from poet friends and reading. I think my poems have become shorter, a bit more compressed. I am aware of the musicality of the poem – the cadence, the pacing, the rhythm. But the struggles are still there: how to get started, how to edit, how to know when a poem is done. I have a huge file on my computer, called ‘Working On.’
“And my subject matter has changed as my life has changed,” she said. “The first book dealt with the divorce and finding a new identity; the second book included the death of my father; this book is about travel, and daughters, and grandsons, and the new life of retirement. About balance. But there are still hummingbirds in the hawthorn tree. Jasmine and tulips. Old lovers and mothers.”
Pelman is at Word Vancouver on Sept. 30, 1:20 p.m., in the Suspension Bridge tent at Library Square Conference Centre, one of three poets participating in “Another Taste of Poetry.” She also joins two other poets in Ronsdale’s Fall Poetry Showcase at Dunbar Public Library on Nov. 7, 6:30 p.m.
For more about Word Vancouver – where Jewish community members Mark Winston and Claire Sicherman will also share their work, at 1:20 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively on Sept. 30 in the Alma VanDusen Room at Library Square – visit wordvancouver.ca. The interim manager of the festival this year is community member Bonnie Nish.