“A Crystal Stranger Taking Off Their Mask”
Octopus Books 2012
I didn’t find out until after I bought it that my copy of Hider Roser has Ben Mirov’s signature on the inside title page. Initially I was excited to find it, but after that I felt something slightly worse, a low-level guilt almost, as though his signature in my book meant that I should have met Ben Mirov myself, should have shaken his hand and complimented his poems before asking him to sign my copy. And I haven’t ever done those things. It’s a feeling similar to just missing your friend at his apartment when you’re in the neighborhood, and having to leave a note. It doesn’t really do what a real life “hello” can do.
But I’m not sure how important this feeling is anymore. After all, Ben Mirov is inside of this collection. He’s there as “a boy named Ben Mirov” in the poem “Winged Boot,” and he signs off with a “yours truly” in “Snowliloquy.” You can also find him in a few titles: “The Hole in My Friends where Ben Mirov Should Be” and “Transmission from the Center of Ben Mirov,” and you can almost find him in “For Ben Mirror” and “Ben Mirror (1888-1935).” I have the strange feeling of knowing “Ben Mirov” without knowing what he looks like, for example, or how he navigates his day-to-day life.
Instead, the impression I get of “Ben Mirov” is a physically vague but emotionally powerful constellation of images, actions, thoughts and interactions. On a spectrum, “Ben Mirov” is more porous than solid. He is a “wolf” of “purplish light” “in the bathroom mirror.” I catch a glimpse of his eyes as he looks through the page to address me: “I am trying to tell you about my friends./The way they have no body or face.” Mirov’s poems eschew things like bodies and faces in favor of interior realities. One poem ends, “Now open your eyes./ Not those eyes./ The eyes inside you.” Another poem purports to provide access to the “containment unit” of a person’s soul. I find myself in this interior space again and again with the help of indirect, repeatedly tangential and slightly new-age language. Here’s a quick example, from “Like a Waif Beneath the Clock Tower on a Winter Night,”
Thank you, Spirit
for all your hard work
shoveling ashes in the dark.
Thank you for guiding me
through the kaleidoscope
where Dylan Thomas died.
Like a circle, you never speak.
You look at the nebulous
glow in the mirror
and brush its yellow teeth.
The words and images make sense without making concrete sense, so that parts of me understand and are engaged without immediately knowing why. The very direct actions within the poem (the act of shoveling, of guiding, of not speaking, of looking) and the very human topics that are addressed (self-gratitude, death, a confrontation with the self) are conjoined to images that do not suit them on an everyday plane of existence (the Spirit, the kaleidoscope, the circle, the nebulous glow). And so I am made comfortable and at home with one set of images, while the other provides new and unfamiliar ways of orienting myself towards this comfort.
But it would be a mistake to think that this collection is brought to life only by things like clouds, vapors, chambers and cubes of light. These poems fall all across that solid-porous spectrum. At one end are poems (a lot of them prose-poems) in which a reader can walk around and recognize things. “High-fives” is one of these poems, a psycho-anthropological sketch that details the benefits of the high-five for sports and for relationships. Another, perhaps a bit more towards the middle of the solid-porous spectrum is “The Shadow Surgeon and His Tools.” It starts with a marine mammal, “I wanted to write/ about walrus a beautiful/ animal with deadly tusks//and dark pitiless eyes,” before shifting more persistently back to the author’s intent:
but what I really wanted
was the walrus itself
and the beach beneath it
and real frothing waves.
And just beyond
the waves a black rock
upon which the walrus would sit
and sharpen its tusks
into razor sharp points.
The poem provides familiar details like eyes, teeth and a mouth, mostly independent of the sorts of unfamiliar and strange images we have seen previously. It is laid out as a failure of a poem, one that does not do what its author intends. It involves a wish for an impossible task to be realized. This failure is made clearer in the last lines:
I noticed my hands
were shaking. Beads of sweat
quivered on my face.
Clearly it would have to be
an amateur walrus.
In its phrase “the walrus itself,” the poem echoes something of the “new knowledge of reality” that Wallace Stevens points towards with his poem, “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” Constructing a “walrus itself” is a difficult thing to do—the outside world of the walrus and the interior mind of the human being are bound to be separate spaces. It is with a slight comedy that the poem opts to turn back towards the first person in the end, toward the personal reality it is comfortable describing. As an outlier in this collection, “Shadow Surgeon” shows the reader an idea that must be transcended for less “amateur,” more nebulous poems to be created. If constructing a poem that embodies a new knowledge of external reality cannot be achieved by the poet, then the poet might be better off turning inward, to find his new knowledge of reality there.
The poem “Figment” is similar to “Shadow Surgeon,” but it’s more porous—its lens is directed more inward than outward. It finds a writer at work in a similar way as before: “Can you picture me/ slumped towards a window hunched over/ a white piece of paper?” And as before he’s grasping at an equally impossible goal: “I am trying to figure out the secret/ of artificial intelligence,/ how to make something get up and live// all by itself.” But accompanying this visual are other, outlying images, like “skeletal trees in a winterscape.” The poem’s latter half suddenly breaks from its “plot” to delve into a new assertion,
though flimsy and hollow like yellow reeds
bent low against the wind
down by the black river where dreams
kneel down to die in peace
are the only things that confuse me.
And this is why I love them.
With tangents like this one, the poem mirrors the stream of consciousness that a writer might experience in writing a poem, moving from cognizant descriptors of one’s self and surroundings, to one’s “beliefs,” to a Romantic river scene, and onward. Yes, the mixing of these spaces and images creates confusion, but in its everydayness and in its confrontation with serious human matters, the reader can sympathize and even follow the poem’s rationale. Despite the necessary confusion, there is a flow to the poem, and it feels natural, as though concepts like “death” and “remembrance” are the only places to move to after “work” and “aesthetic beauty.”
Death is there in a number of Mirov’s poems. It isn’t something that is necessarily “faced” or “confronted”— it’s just there, in many different ways. The word crematorium (or variations of it) surfaces in several different places. “Lifetime Achievement” and “You May Experience Seepage” traverse entire lives, passing through old age’s deterioration to meet death. “Hider Roser,” arguably, does something similar with its fast and open last few lines:
rearranging the letters in horse rider
you get hider roser, which means something
you will never understand
with only a few minutes left
one end of the hose going into your head and the other
going don’t know where.
And interestingly, death surfaces in more than one poem on the buoy of friendship. Our narrator appears to feel his own eventual absence more perceptively when he recognizes himself as something acknowledged by other people. As an example, most of “The Hole in My Friends Where Ben Mirov Should Be” is a grim descent (like the sinking ship it employs: “your vessel sinking downwards/ toward an inexplicable abyss/ packed with biomass and meaning”) into the territory of dying: the day, the ceremony, the inconsequence of every piece of it. The poem only lifts in its conclusion, where “waking” out of the nightmare, our narrator still exists, and has friends that “have noticed my absence/ and await my Return.” But none of that dying stuff is refuted. It’s not shaken off. The author and the reader still live with it, and have to breathe for a second, and maybe even forget about it a little before carrying on with the collection.
In “Snowliloquy,” Ben Mirov’s friends are back. They’re in California, and he’s on the other side of the country in Brooklyn, watching “Snowflake after/ snowflake like jellyfish drifting through the void// above a balcony.” It’s a contemplative scene. You can feel the air’s thickness in the line break between these friends and the rumination that follows:
Loneliness is something more
than nothingness. It’s Snowbody
touching your thigh in bed. Snowbody
chopping the peppers for the soup. Snowbody
calling your name from the control room
late one night. When Snowone is around
you think about them. Or you gauge
the rate of your disintegration.
The exact amount of detritus
you’ll leave floating through your friends.
Snow is a recurrent image inside Hider Roser. It obscures, it adds static and weight, but it also dims, makes prettier. Just as “Loneliness is something more/ than nothingness,” Snowbody is something more than Nobody. The consolation of this snowy scene is not enough, though, to prevent the following scenes of romance and cheap drama from sinking back towards the self’s sad desolation in the face of the thoughts of others’ thoughts about it.
“Snowlilioquy” doesn’t fall victim to sentimentality, and one reason why is the strange wordplay it engages. Snowbody? As I read, I can’t completely get the image of a snowman out of my head. It’s whimsical, almost funny. This same sort of wordplay comes up in a few other poems too, usually the sadder ones. In some ways it functions as a mechanism for coping. Language as a distraction, as an eject cord for when the heat from the engine’s jet becomes too much to bear. It highlights the poem-ness of the poems, creating a comfortable level of psychological distance. “The Poem Addresses Ben Mirov in an Inconsolable State of Grief” speaks to this more directly:
a car and driving a star
are almost the same
if you believe as I believe
the world is made of language.
A world made of language affords us an opportunity to transform our troubles into happier things that only sound like our troubles. Trying “not to think about Amanda’s amputated nest/ or the broom where Greg/ cradled a nun in his hands” isn’t quite so difficult to do. And in “Dove Life,” if we borrow one of the last lines from “The Poem Addresses,” (“There is never enough lime/ with those you dove”) then love opens up into a bird that can only fly away. And the poem’s image of the heart as a “castle// built of tiny hollow bones” becomes that much more affecting.
Not having gotten my signature directly from Ben Mirov isn’t important at all, as it turns out. The things that I think I know about him now are bound firmly to what I know about “Ben Mirov,” which is admittedly only a fragmentary cloud of understanding of a person’s interior life. The quotation by Mary Reufle that begins the collection is useful for me as I think about a reader’s relationship to the author. She writes, and Ben Mirov quotes, “Pity the poor proofreader/ who thinks this darke body of clowds/ was my life.”
Jonathan Aprea is a writer and a photographer. He lives in Brooklyn.