I Pour Myself into a Phone: TFT Review of Ghost Machine by Ben Mirov
Thanks for coming to 12 Galaxies.
I’m not calling the Vampire anymore.
I can’t keep thinking of August.
You don’t have to drink about the boat.
You don’t have to take off your pants.
Sorry about the boots on your bed.
I just want a job with an income.
I go down on the breeze.
The earlobe is wet.
–Ben Mirov (“Ghost of One Summer Night”)
The poems in Ben Mirov’s Ghost Machine read like notes from the pad of a disaffected stenographer. A deranged recording device haunts the poet’s consciousness and seems to hover in the space between the speaker and subject of address. Information gets left out; a skeletal, but somehow deeply intimate and surreal scaffolding remains. It is in the tension between this sort of bare-bones narration and the vastness of sentences that surface like hypertextual icebergs that the pathos of this poet’s attempt to cope with the trauma of memory and lost love inheres. Yeah: Ben Mirov is in a relationship with “ghosts” and it’s complicated…
The book is divided into seven sections of prose poems. In the first, we learn that our speaker—a deeply anxious writer/editor, schoolteacher, and Bay Area dweller—is having trouble getting over his recent ex-lover: “I’m living in a dream where a woman has a blurry face.” We follow him around his nights and days. He eats, works, socializes, and narrates inane and beautiful observations in the first person. He is the morose artist friend you knew from college, descended into a surreal and indulgent half-life:
I hover in front of a chain link fence for hours reading signs. My day is a long protracted silence. I pour myself into a phone call to avoid a little rain. Wind comes through a crack in the glass. They put lights in the basilica months ago, I didn’t notice. I program a future version of myself to remember a face slick with seawater, ringed with wet hair. The message is sent back with nothing inside. I can’t believe my life was like this three years ago. I would have sex and just lie there, thinking about things I had to do. I woke up in a grocery store. I was buying broccoli.
(“Ghost Of A Morning After You Left Me”)
Some poems, like the above, are more fluidly narrative and diaristic. Others exhibit a parataxis that seems to have more to do with Mirov’s spot-on regurgitation of A.D.D. syntax than with any collagist pretension or interest in “The New Sentence” (though the influence of Pierre Reverdy’s Cubist poetry and Ron Silliman’s new-media poetics plays a part in his writing). The language here is decidedly the vernacular of the Napster Generation, filtered through an ear for the uncanny, articulated through a voice box barely willing (and with good reason) to get its ass off the couch.
Sandwiching the guts of the book are two quotations—epigram and postgram. The first, from Jack Spicer, refers to the poet’s notion of “poetry as dictation.” Poetry comes to the poet from outer or other space, from beyond the grave: “The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems. We have it second hand. They cannot hear the noise they have been making.” The second, from Anne Lauterbach’s “Alice in Wasteland,” comes up when Alice overhears someone ask her answering machine “Are you there?/Are you there?/Are you there?” But a machine always answers the same thing, no matter the question. “The you of the question was not the what of the machine,” Lauterbach muses.
The arc drawn from inspirational “ghost” to recording “machine” becomes a figure or foil for Mirov’s writing practice. It’s as if we are meant to intercept his poems on their way from a phenomenal space-time beyond his understanding to a less than sentient depository beyond his control. Or, as Mirov puts it, “I plan to be another language in the body of a deer”:
I go to a shop where people sell machines that keep you up. People flow in and out of the infrastructure like haywire birds. It doesn’t matter what you say to the recording device. Nothing can save the face blowing across the face. Someone catches me and shoves enough wire through my dream. Someone getting out of bed to the sound of someone showering. Someone eating pieces in the dark. It scares me through another night with no ideas. I need artificial clouds to give. If we are ever in a car together, I hope light pours through the windshield. I plan to be another language in the body of a deer.
(“Sleepless Night Ghost”)
The Spicer-Lauterbach theoretical frame may be a little far out for most users. But, like I said, it’s tentative, a scarecrow, a big as if. It helps to explain Mirov’s anaesthetic tone and the repetitions that he puts through a sort of playback interference. Ideas repeat in different contexts and permutations: “my bed is an ear that cannot record,” (page 19) “my bed is a petal in a glass of vodka,” (page 70) “her face is an ear that cannot record,” (page 71) “she puts her face inside a bed” (page 97).
It also justifies the Orphic bridge section, “Eye, Ghost,” a long poem that mostly recycles lines from elsewhere in the book, in which the “I” of the speaker is replaced by the “Eye” of a widening notion about the function of subjectivity in writing:
Eye wake up in a construct. Eye lay on my bed and sweat. Eye replay final moments. Eye try to picture her face. Eye program a future version of myself to remember it, slick with seawater, ringed with wet hair. Eye go to a little shop where they sell machines that keep you up. Eye lay the crumpled body next to a convenience store. Eye place the organs in separate aluminum trays. Eye stand on the street like every car belongs to her. Eye know. It doesn’t matter what Eye say to the recording device. [...]
The pronoun is a machine for generating perspective, a construct presupposing the absence of an ethereal hand. “Eye smash the construct to remember its ghost,” writes Mirov. At first glance, this conceit seems ripped from some kind of idiots guide to Language Poetry (a book I would love to read, by the way). But the almost automatic dumbness of his substitution works with the general lethargy of the book. The reliance on repetition serves a similar function, though I did find myself wanting more fresh text and less re-mixing from the poet. I guess I’ll have to wait for what he comes up with next.
This bridge is a slow moment, but it leads, through the dark, transformative wood, to a more variegated place and to Mirov’s best works. The sections that follow are complexly textured and richly energetic: “I don’t know if a salve was applied or what. I crawl through the crevice and panic. I come upon an egg and wolf it down. Who was chasing me through the brush?” As the book progresses, the speaker begins to move on with things (“The next phase of my life begins”) and tunes in to the crazy alphabetarium of people around him: “D takes off his pants and simulates sex/ with J. The next step is to think like B./ D escapes through the kitchen” (“Ghost Drafts”). It’s like we’re thrust into the sardonic twin of the “Lust for Life” music video (Girls, not Iggy Pop), minus the twee.
Mirov’s book is continuing proof that the language of a younger (‘90s) generation is making its way, with more than a little intelligence, to the editorial desks of small presses everywhere. (There’s even a video game poem called “Kid Dream Title”—something that is becoming more and more common.) But Ghost Machine is for anyone. At the same time, it is one of the best accounts of my life that I have ever read.
Ghost Machine is the winner of the 2009 Caketrain Chapbook Competition. You can get if for not a lot of money here.
Caketrain is a small, independent press and literary journal based in Pittsburgh.
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