‘The Threshold of Broken Waters’ by Emily Bilman. Review by Emma Lee

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Emma Lee reviews Emily Bilman's, The Threshold of Broken Waters.

The Threshold of Broken Waters by Emily Bilman
  • Publisher: Troubador Publishing (14 Aug. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1789013801
  • ISBN-13: 978-1789013801
  • Get it here

‘The Threshold of Broken Waters’ draws on the metaphor of a poet giving birth to a poem, where the poet knows that the end result will be a poem but doesn’t know what shape, what personality or what demands the poem might make of the poet. ‘The Art of Writing’ ends, 

‘I am meant to mend the gap between 

Word and meaning, mediating 

Between the potential meaning 

Of words, expecting to be endorsed 

By my father’s thwarted court.’

The father doesn’t seem keen on his daughter being a writer but it also works as an illustration of what a reader brings to a poem and that a poet has little control over how a reader reacts to a poem. No matter how carefully a poet considers their chosen words, a reader may not follow a poet’s interpretation. Just as a baby may not grow into its parents’ ambitions for it but decide its own path in life. There’s an actual baby too, in ‘Breaking of Waters’,

‘At the confluence of two rivers forming a single Source. 

Stars contracted, then burst to spurt out

Their celestial gist in me as my son crossed 

The narrow canal that left him breathless

Until his lungs could cry out under his father’s aegis. 

I held him against my body in perfect symbiosis.’

Crossing the threshold here is symbolic rather than biological (babies take in oxygen through the umbilical cord in the womb, once out their first lesson is to breathe so it’s not the birth canal that leaves them breathless. A father’s protectiveness is not part of this process.) Birth is one of those universal, yet personal, experiences; an everyday miracle. Becoming a mother naturally triggers memories of her own mother or her own childhood, in ‘Wedlock’,

‘When my father’s wife gifted me 

the red leather ballerina shoes 

decorated with flowers that she kept 

in her closet with her wedlock

she said they had married solely 

for platonic convenience. My father, then, 

came out of his room poised on his cane. 

He gazed at me silently’ 

Here father has taken on the role of mother since the stepmother seems unable to give motherly advice. Oddly, the poet doesn’t let the reader know whether the gifted shoes fitted or even what the poet thinks about them. Did the poet mention she’d liked them out of politeness and is now placed in the awkward position of accepting a gift she doesn’t want? Do they fit the poet? For a poet so wrapped in symbolism, missing the fairytale symbolism of ‘red ballerina shoes’ feels like a missed opportunity. The poet returns to focus on her son. In ‘Intercession’,

‘My son, you were born to reconcile 

Your mother’s sea-quest with your father’s 

Fortified rock-gates. My son, you were born 

To mediate between the sea’s accessibility 

And the intimacy of cloistered courtyards. 

My son, you were born with the wisdom 

Of tactful modesty apt to mediate between 

The city’s ramparts and the city’s sea-gates 

Like the southern wind intercedes with the rain 

To plead for the harvest of barley and wheat.’

The poem, rightly, has the feeling of prayer and there’s a sense that although the parents expect the reward of a harvest, it is also their responsibility to tend to and enable their crop. A prayer-like quality also flows through ‘Greenness’ where cows, 

‘near the river clattering their mouths, 

talking of greenness – lime, fern, mint, 

olive, sage, moss, pine, cedar, juniper, 

seaweed, teal, aquamarine, chartreuse – 

shades of greenness toying 

with the sea-breeze imbibed 

with salt, brine, and iodine, 

the hues of the evening 

that soothe my breathing.’

‘The Threshold of Broken Waters’ is concerned with the transformative effects of life changing events, where birth is a key metaphor for production, whether a poem or a another human. It also considers ritual thresholds: wedding as a marker between childhood and adulthood, becoming a parent as a marker between the freedom of being single and the responsibility for another. In addition to looking forward at her growing son, Emily Bilman also looks back at childhood memories with the new insight of being a new parent. The poems are lyrical and offered as balm rather than challenge. They feel like meditative affirmations.

Emma Lee

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