This is an interesting and often moving collection of poems by the only member of the Suffolk Poetry Society who lives in Switzerland. In these poems, the writer explores the deepest and most mysterious aspects of herself and we the readers are assisted in our own self -explorations. The sense of exile from the world and from oneself which Emily explores, goes all the way back to that most potent and enduring of myths: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Like Edwin Muir, Emily convinces the reader that this expulsion from paradise was not all loss and that exile can deepen human perceptions and can lead to a breathless sense of freedom. By confronting danger, we can experience more fully a sense of being human and alive. In other words, we needed to be expelled from Eden in order to help us grow up.
Emily is a widely read poet – an increasing rarity – and the book abounds with references to T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and so on. Indeed, one of the finest poems in this collection, a free verse sonnet, is inspired by perhaps Coleridge's finest poem, Frost At Midnight. This poem is dedicated to a friend of Emily's, the late John Coleridge who lived in Norfolk and who was a descendant of the great poet. This poem is entitled The Stranger: we are so often strangers to ourselves and one of the principal benefits of reading poetry is that it helps us to get to know ourselves better.
. . . that other stranger, once
behind bars, who helped free the troubling
stranger in me, helped me make
the inkling of a song into
a home-pledged poem given
to the pure in heart like the frost's
crystal ministry secretly growing in me.
There is a subtle weaving of the words of Colerdige and the words of Emily like a delicately woven tapestry which we all must weave in order to create a mirror image of ourselves like a woman gazing at her shifting reflection in a poem entitled Well:
My water-image whispers back at me;
my curiosity is a well-spring dug
deep by my scanning senses . . .
Scanning senses with its pun on scanning is a wonderful description of how the sensibility of a poet works. A poet scans the world with minute observation: Thomas Hardy described himself as one who notices things. At the same time, the poet scans the lines flowing from his pen in order to make memorable the images which have been captured.
In a number of the poems in this collection, one senses a constant striving to cleanse the windows of perception, to see the world with a dazzling clarity as if viewing the everyday world for the very first time. In the words of a Scottish poet, to glimpse the marvellous in the mundane. It's so easy to lose sight of the sheer strangeness of the physical world which we inhabit. In the poem, Washing we read:
Bent over my body like an icicle
hanging down a cave, I wash myself
to utter cleanliness.
Sometimes the language in A Woman By A Well can appear rather precious and archaic but one comes away from this book with a heightened sense of the complex nature of selfhood and wonder at the world which we inhabit.
by James Knox Whittet, President of the Suffolk Poetry Society
Emily Bilman is more than a woman with a message, more than a talented poet. Through her poetry she embodies the strength of womankind and gives voice to that strength through her writing. Her powerful message comes alive in A WOMAN BY A WELL: A SELF-PORTRAIT. This is the kind of book that one wants to read several times, because each trip through its pages builds and adds to the portrait of the woman by the well. Each reading of the book unfolds more and more about her and what drives her onwards. We get to know her and through her, we get to know ourselves. Careful readings will help us reach the ultimate conclusion that the poet is speaking for all mankind and not only for and about women alone.
Though the message flows from the heart and the pen of a woman, do not assume that her manner of speaking is gentle or soft. Quite the contrary, it is as if we are listening to Queen Boadicea or Joan of Arc rallying the troops with sword held high. Her language is strong and powerful and we are forced to pay attention to what she says. Sometimes we tremble at her words, sometimes we are awe-inspired.
Bilman’s poetry is divided into five sections: AWARENESS, THE FIGURES OF EXILE, PRIMAL SIGHT, SYNESTHESIA and THE BIRTH OF IMAGES. For the most part, the poet speaks to us in the first person. Each section of the book adds another layer to the poetic canvas, as the narrator paints a picture of herself and reveals her inner nature to us in this self-portrait. She holds nothing back, is generous with her use of colours and is bold with her brush strokes. Her vision of herself and our understanding of it comes alive on her word-painted masterpiece. At times she is as careful as a realist – at other times as unrestrained as an impressionist. But always she is an artist who captures and retains our attention. This is a portrait of “me”, she seems to shout. Look at it – know me – and know yourself by knowing me.
The poems in AWARENESS read like a chapter from the Old Testament. We see the woman and her partner duped by the serpent and expelled from the garden. Tradition has always held that the woman was the cause of the rift between man and god. Rather than becoming the historical scapegoat for the fall from grace, Bilman’s heroine becomes the champion of mankind. She makes the best of the hand dealt to her and rises to overcome all odds, even death. The woman/poet becomes the voice of her own kind and of mankind, and through her words shows us her strength and leadership.
In THE FIGURES OF EXILE, the narrator asks us to journey with her through time and to observe closely as she demonstrates the evil around us and the power of mankind in the face of adversity. To do so, she uses a series of mythological images and metaphors from the ancient world, the ravages of the Black Death in the middle ages, the modern day horrors of the ghetto and the Holocaust, and the stark picture of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
One particular poem in the section entitled PRIMAL SIGHT, introduces to us her ultimate challenge, her most powerful enemy – death.
We discover that it is love itself that gives us the power to conquer death and Bilman, as poet/human/voice, shows us how she has used love to overcome her own personal losses. It is as if she is telling us to go and to do likewise. She has shown us the way forward.
In the section called SYNESTHESIA, she introduces the concept of interconnections. The theory for which the section is named, holds that the stimulation of one pathway in the senses or the brain leads to the involuntary stimulation of a different pathway. With “colour synesthesia”, those who experience the condition see letters or numbers as coloured.
And finally in THE BIRTH OF IMAGES, the narrator explores fully the subject of her poetic interconnections. All poetry is about connections, the ties that the poet has to people, events, places, feelings, things animate and things inanimate. Poetry is the expression of those connections on paper. We all have connections but only a true artist, in this case a word artist, is able to paint a picture of those connections that we the viewing public can stand back and admire. In this final section, Bilman shows us that she is one with nature, as is demonstrated in the various images drawn from nature which she paints for us. She takes her power from nature and uses it to stand tall and to speak loudly.
Emily Bilman has done a wonderful job describing herself in A WOMAN BY A WELL:
A SELFPORTRAIT. But she has done more than that. Through her example, she has given us a roadmap for the journey through life. She has taught us how to be strong in the face of adversity. As she concludes in POETRY,
I recollect the primeval rover’s
timely forward thrust – standing,
striding, walking, writing.
We hope to see more from Emily Bilman, a very talented poet indeed.
by Brian E. Wrixon, Author