LIVING WITH GHOSTS: ON BEN MIROV’S GHOST MACHINE
If Ben Mirov were a musician, he would be Rivers Cuomo. On a physical level, the similarities are similar enough: both are short with a stature that still demands respect, both wear eyeglasses, and both seem culturally secure and insecure at the same time. Most importantly, though, both made important works in the very early stages of their careers.1
These similarities become the most obvious when comparing two of the artists’ early, seminal works. For Rivers, it’s Weezer’s 1996 album, Pinkerton. For Mirov, it’s his post-confessional poetry collection, Ghost Machine, released in the spring of 2009. Ghost Machine won the 2009 Caketrain Chapbook Competition.2 But don’t let the word chapbook create a misrepresentation of the book—at 110 pages and consisting of 42 poems, this is a full-length poetry collection—and Mirov’s first.
The evolution that came to be Ghost Machine is well documented on Ben Mirov’s personal blog. The first part of what would become Ghost Machine3 originated in chapbook form, under the title Collected Ghosts, and was published as an e-book by H_n_gm_n.4 Most of the poems were written on a couch that wasn’t his. He was in San Francisco’s Mission district at the time—a central location of Ghost Machine. On his blog, Mirov writes, “I wrote most of the sentences as a method of passing time and dealing with my fucked emotional state. I would describe my overriding emotion during that time as a feeling of emptiness.” The “fucked emotional state” Mirov describes has to do with a break-up with a woman described simply as C.
Ben Mirov wrote Ghost Machine in California, but it wasn’t revised until he moved to New York City. Later in the same blog post, Mirov states: “I spliced some of the sentences together into new sentences. The new things reminded me of things that had happened to me, but they were completely different than what had happened to me. It was like sampling myself.” Ben Mirov is the “I” and the “Eye” in Ghost Machine.5
Like Rivers’ lyrics on Pinkerton, Mirov’s poems in Ghost Machine are about the lust of the every day, from the mundane of riding the B.A.R.T. to office-sex. But unlike Pinkerton, which is mostly a sophomoric take on unrequited love combined with Rivers’ inability to talk to a woman who may or may not know he exists—in “El Scorcho,” Rivers screams, “Just come down on the street/And dance with me,”—in Ghost Machine, Mirov deals with something bigger—an exploding heart. And that is where the similarities between the two end.
Even the starkness of the cover of Ghost Machine resembles the lyrical prose Mirov uses to describe the break with C. The cover consists of a bleached white background, giant black eyes in the middle. There is nothing above the eyes, but teeth line the bottom of the book, jutting up like Bowser’s spikes in Super Mario. Mirov’s name and the book title fill in for a mouth. The cover is playful, but haunting. It’s impossible not to notice.
Mirov leaves as much out of these poems as he includes. This makes the narrator untrustworthy, despite his best intentions of being honest. In “My Liars,” Mirov writes, “Even though she’s not the one, I think of us on a bike.” We don’t believe him, and we’re not supposed to. Even the title implicates this. And just to accentuate the point, three lines later, he states, “Waiting in the morning for my hair to look right, I feel like shit.” It creates an impressive juxtaposition that shouldn’t work, but does.
As necessary as Ghost Machine reads, though, the book is not without its flaws. It’s a young book by a young author, and Mirov’s inability to discern coded emotion from just coded words strung into a sentence that sounds cool can sometimes hurt the fluidity of his poems, especially since most of them are so short. The fourth “Ghost Chapter” titled poem starts strong: “They have office-sex. They have sex on a couch.” It reads like a report, which is Mirov’s point. But then we get to the third line: “Their genitals look like audience members without hats.” I get it, I do, but it feels cheap. The emotional resonance left over from the first two lines is gone. The humor is a little stale. Mirov doesn’t trust himself. The problem with writing such strong lines 85% of the time is that the other 15% becomes more noticeable. This is a small discomfort, though, and it becomes something barely recognizable when looking at the book as a whole.
Cut into six sections, the third section, “Eye Ghost,” is the weakest. All of the “I”’s have been replaced with “Eye.” Repetition is a major device found throughout Ghost, but in “Eye Ghost,” it is used past exhaustion. The section is only ten pages long, but it reads twice that length. Most of the lines in it (if not all of them) are “remixed” from other poems in the book. It comes off faulty in the same way that Rivers sings, “I’ll bring home the turkey/If you bring home the bacon,” on “El Scorcho.” “El Scorcho” is a brilliant song, but, at times, is overdone. Mirov needs to learn how to pull back. Still, this is a hard thing to criticize—all emotions are overdone, and so much is at stake in every page of Ghost Machine that it’s easy to let these small faults slip out of themselves.
Recently, I found myself re-reading my second purchased copy of Ghost Machine for probably the sixth time. The first thing that stuck out to me was how unimportant the poem titles felt. They don’t add anything to the poems. In fact, I was often thrown off by their existence. The layout of the titles even feels clunky. They separate themselves from the poems they own by what feels like a paragraph worth of space, almost as if the titles didn’t know what to do with themselves.
Parts of Ghost Machine feel catatonic. Mirov repeats exact lines throughout the collection. And if not the exact line, then something very similar. It creates a daydream as nightmare—a trip on BART to a party on a roof. Whose roof? It doesn’t matter. Many of the characters are just a letter—C, D, E, R, and A. There are others who weave themselves in and out of the poems like ghosts themselves. There are full names, at times: a phone call from Malcolm, sentences that “. . . fall out of Michelle” (“Fog Machine”). It’s the mundane qualities of Ghost Machine that make the lines resonate: “Chris and Leah come in the front . . . I’m not calling what’s-her-name” (“Zero Machine”). In “San Francisco Over Clouds,” Mirov is universal when he writes, “I write three letters to her in my head. I get nervous about dating.” As personal as Ghost is, Mirov is able to scale back far enough to allow us all to splice our own spectral memories into his poems.
It would be impossible for me to write about Ghost Machine without mentioning what the book has done for my own work. My newest collection, Monogamy Songs, is in the same vein as Ghost—short vignettes (mine in an all prose poem format) that line up a disjointed narrative. Characters, many with just an initial, weave in and out of the narrative arc created by the prose poems. Simply put, Monogamy Songs would not exist if I had never read Ghost Machine.
It is illogical to explain the necessity of Ghost Machine, but it is illogical for me not to tell you to read it. Ghost Machine is a haunt. Dystopian without the apocalypse, sexy without any fucking—the prose contains so much self-awareness that Mirov finds no reason to explain any more than he feels necessary. Every line contains its own ghost, and that’s the point.
1 Pinkerton is Weezer’s second album, and Ghost Machine is Mirov’s first full-length collection, though he published chapbooks first.
2 Judged by Michael Burkard.
3 The manuscript that won the 2009 Caketrain Chapbook Competition is not the manuscript that was published by Caketrain. After acceptance, it was decided to turn Ghost Machine into a full-length poetry collection. Ben Mirov then combined the original Ghost Machine with its already published counterpart (Collected Ghosts). He then wrote a new middle section for the book.
4 This is only partially true. On Mirov’s blog (isaghost.blogspot.com), he mentions Collected Ghosts first appearing in print form back in 2005 from F.M.P. (Fire Man Press), when he made chapbooks in his apartment in San Francisco.
5 More on this later in the essay.