July 2010

Sean Patrick Hill


Ghost Machine by Ben Mirov

“I should tell you something about my life,” Ben Mirov intones in the midst of Ghost Machine, and by this point, about two-thirds of the way through the book, the reader has already been absolutely inundated with bizarre images from the life of a poet that seems indissoluble from the words on the page -- it feels at once autobiographical, despite any argument over the separation of “voice” from “poet” and so on, but also vaguely fictive, fantastical. Either way, this book is frighteningly honest in tone, fact, and style, and we are thrown into a vision of life that is at once playful and unbearable. 

Ghost Machine, winner of the 2009 Caketrain Chapbook Competition, is exactly as its title suggests: a stylistic cavalcade of poems reminiscent of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, in the sense that Mirov has stumbled across a form that, once unleashed, harnesses and contains the energy of the language. The formalism of the book is its constancy, a deceptively simple series of rapid-fire declarative sentences that carry the entire weight of the book, the machine through which the ghost -- that elusive personality of fractured understanding that the speaker himself can barely comprehend -- must attempt to speak. 

Which is to say, simply, that the poems -- or, really, the poem, since the book is actually a whole broken into smaller units of titled poems, some longer, some prose-poems, some minimalist -- are some of the most straightforward, undisguised, unhindered-by-anything-obsessively-poetic poems as can be found. 

It’s best just to dive in: 

In my dreams, I have the same problems. I hear the birds
outside at night. She waits by an unreachable lake. I can hear
wolves as they run through the underbrush. They have seams
attached to their ankles attached to something I read in college.
She sends me a text: Sorry not tonite, Ben. See u soon. 

This, from “Ghost (12:17 PM)”, represents the best of Mirov’s book. Images are both disparate and cohesive; simple, clichéd words take on a charged meaning (note “text” with its various connotations). We are utterly familiar with the surroundings, but some kind of fog has been laid over the map to make it register a paranormal glow. The apparently simplistic sentences (“I hear birds outside at night”) become strange and pregnant with emotion simply by the arrangement and placement in the context of other, more figurative sentences (“They have seams…”), all of them fitting seemingly seamlessly together. 

Ghost Machine even has, arguably, a “plot,” or at least several layers of themes: love and its loss, the violence of a city, soul-killing debauchery, among others. It is written in a plain language any contemporary, even jaded, hipster-cum-Gen X/Y candidate would instantly recognize, the language of a Lollapalooza and post-indie culture. The skill in weaving that language into poetry, though, is formidable, but Mirov pulls it off with aplomb. The language is at once recognizable, but is instantly elevated into a kind of weary sublimity, heavy with grief and confusion. 

The confusion is explicit: “I can only misquote what the voice tries to say,” he states early on, and the same line is repeated toward the end, encircling the extent of the text. At the same time, he tries to find meaning in a chaos of social obligations and the like: “Friends fall through my poems in search of / new life.” To complicate things further, the poet obsesses on the making of the poems: “My ideas are boring” and “I cut up missionary pamphlets to make a collage” (a wonderful metaphor for this collection) demonstrate the two kinds of sentences present, both the simple and the figurative. The poet is a “program writing files” out of seemingly random input made concrete. 

In the midst of all this confusion, the ghost must both find an identity (“Nothing can save the face / blowing across the face”) and find safety from the emotional devastation (“I say green bunnies to / protect me from the silence we make”) as well as make sense of the whole thing (“I / wait for a plan to cipher my life”). 

Of course, the whole book threatens to dissolve into, for lack of a better term, adolescent concerns. This is, after all, the poems of a young man, or at least a young, ghostly figure in search of sanity in a cruel, urban landscape. Though the book certainly does move through a clear arc, it does not attempt a pilgrim’s progress toward wisdom, per se, but rather glories and wails in the Inferno-like terrain. Nonetheless, Rimbaud would have understood, not to mention Baudelaire, both of which are like ghosts themselves, hovering over Mirov’s words with their own concerns and vision. 

In the end, one can see this machine running forever, as Berryman attempted with the style that consumed him in The Dream Songs. Consider “Ghost Couple,” which closes the book: 

I’m granted a dream of an unglowing girl. She stops to speak like
a mirror in droves. The end of the silence means nothing to me.
The machine at his desk writing his dark. I do my best to picture
her face. She puts her face inside a bed. People call back in a
murmur of time. The streets are filled with outlines coated in
rain. I have to erase what I compress. I can’t get to the end of
the block. I turn around and hear a voice.

A powerful ending to a truly innovative book, but still, one finds oneself wishing the machine would go on forever, writing the dark, never getting to the end of the block. 

Ghost Machine by Ben Mirov
Caketrain Press
99 Pages