A Woman By A Well : A Self Portrait by Emily Bilman
Reviewed by James Knox Whittet
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 ¨C an increasing rarity ¨C 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 senseswith 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.
James Knox Whittet
President of the Suffolk Poetry Society