Review of Ezra Miles' The Signalman in The High Window Press

Review of Ezra Miles' The Signalman in The High Window Press

We are feeling very grateful today after finding this wonderful review of Ezra Miles' The Signalman in The High Window Press, thanks so much to Tom Phillips for writing it. 

It is probably fair to say that, on opening any book of poetry, especially a debut collection, readers expect two somewhat contradictory things: to feel they’re in a safe pair of hands, but that ultimately they’re going to be surprised or, best of all, enlightened. Ezra Miles’ debut – originating in his own experiences as a signalman posted to a remote corner of the British railways network in Lincolnshire, rather than in response to Dickens’ well-known short story of the same name – fulfils both those expectations. A combination of diary-like short poems in italics and titled pieces that address concerns, beliefs and emotions arising from his experiences, it combines a visceral immediacy with an openness to what might be called the spiritual other as well as finely tuned language that, even on the first page, gives us ‘a smoke-strafed, ground-floor flat, snarls cut sharply/across the stained walls, front door off its jamb where/a broken man, the former tenant, kicked it in’ – a seemingly simple observation that’s heavy with assonance and alliteration and brings into view a first suggestion of a motif – fire – that courses through the book and ultimately transforms into light and, indeed, enlightenment. The way these few words are deployed tells us already that we’re in safe hands and that we’re entering terrain that may frequently jolt our expectations.

The near-solitude of his working existence brings Miles hard up against what he refers to as the ‘penumbra’ and his encounters with what’s beyond the apparent mundanity of signal-box life. The thematic armature of the collection is an often intense negotiation with belief and faith, their manifestations and challenges, but this is a negotiation which is conducted through close observation of the actually existing and often cruel, visceral or quite simply baffling physical and material world. This is, as Miles puts it himself, poetry written by ‘A strange man in dialogue/with (something greater than) himself.’ It is also poetry that sees, in a fleeting glimpse of a Muntjac deer, an ‘extant shadow, floating/up against the hillside, perhaps//the finest of all the poems I’ve read’ and unflinchingly recounts what must be done with a misshapen calf in ‘True Night’, a poem that recalls the visceral immediacy of Ted Hughes’ Moortown Diaries.

Geoffrey Hill’s urgent attention to the questions of faith in and, to a lesser extent, those of Donald Davie in his later work come to mind, but Miles’ voice is very much his own and his anxieties extend back to the febrile explorations of what lies outside and beyond that characterise early 20th-century European symbolists. ’14 Lines’, for example, examines complex spiritual and emotional knots teased at by the likes of the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren and Bulgaria’s Geo Milev in his fiery Baudelairean phase. Opening with the bold statement ‘Death would be a mercy. You don’t deserve it.’, the neo-sonnet (as it were) continues with self-reflexively harsh criticism of itself:

I look to God and my
sordid, defiant demon hates him. My one
orthwhile fragment of soul, His domain, feels
farther, starker. I am angry at my poverty,
I take it out on the poem: little music in this

There is, of course, quite a lot of music buried within these lines as well as across the rest of a collection which resonates with an authenticity that is able to traverse the ranges of human experience without sounding trite, simplistic or indeed over-complicated and histrionic in its confessions. The poems in The Signalman are worked for and worked at. The best of them have an atmosphere that is simultaneously, paradoxically, provocative and reassuring, as if we’re being invited into a landscape where visionaries and hermits lurk, but without being entirely sure of what they or we might be about to encounter in the ‘penumbra’ that remains tantalisingly somewhere out there.

It is the energy contained within the collection, however, that stands out, deriving, as it does, from both the seriousness of its enquiry and the strongly rhythmic music of its linguistic surfaces. This emerges in both relatively loose, free-form poems like ‘Diagrams of the Heart”, with its stream of consciousness-like flow of images (‘Oh the skin skin but what of the maze of love/the high-pillar hedgerows mansions of love/heart in more code atonal tune chirps/through a dee-sea cable laid across bedrock’), and the taut little ekphrastic poem ‘A New Church’ in response to Pieter Breugel’s ‘The Harvesters’ in which ‘The woman replace their/tall white hats and bob/into the burning gold’.

Towards the end of the collection, the poem ‘Avocet’ directly addresses the connection between the isolation of the signalman’s life, depression (‘the dark-faced avocet of your own life’) and finding solace in the ongoing existence of the ‘hallowed earth’ embodied in the existence of the bird with its ‘long stiletto bill furrowing’. The poems ends with couplets which, in many ways, characterise the tilt of the music sounding throughout the collection as a whole:

In the harsh timbre of its song, unthinking and
strangled, I know I mustn’t leave this hallowed earth,

no, not until night arrives of its own volition,
to pierce life’s strange and swooping tune.


Originally reviewed by Tom Phillips and published on June 28, 2024 in The High Window Reviews.

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