There’s Coffee On My Shirt, Not Blood

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Seemingly masked in the two words of the title (Ghost this, Machine that), Ben Mirov has written an intimate, if cryptic, book of poetry.

Ben Mirov’s
Ghost Machine
, winner of the 2009 Caketrain Chapbook Competition, is the poetic equivalent of a mumblecore film, shot full of jump cuts with a dose of Michel Gondry’s weird mechanics. Unfailingly, these poems are built of short, repetitious lines and fractured images; often dream-like images of the young, the ambling, the hopelessly hip. Seemingly masked in the two words of the title (Ghost this, Machine that), Mirov has written an intimate, if cryptic, book of poetry.

“Friends fall through my poems in search of a new life,” Mirov’s speaker tells us in one of the books early pieces, “Spacecase,” which holds true throughout. Ghost Machine is full of names; Toms, Erins, Jareds, Josephs, Brians, and quite often just first initials. Some recur, and some don’t, and much like the very rooted scenery of San Francisco, they lend the poems an air of the confessional more than of any symbolic import.

Take for instance “Ghost (1:42AM),”

[…] There’s coffee
on my shirt, not blood. I can’t absorb information on a bench
in Dolores. I had a dream we were in a hotel. Your blonde
friend was faceless. She offered me salsa.

At times, when the lines of his poems seem incomprehensible in their abrupt juxtaposition, Mirov’s insistence on blending dream-like sentences with the ordinary becomes pleasantly elusive. Here, Mirov has defined the setting (“Dolores,” in S.F.’s Mission district) and specifically placed the reader in the reality of his park bench. But the action of the poem takes place in the speaker’s mind, not his reality, and there we find the most intriguing lines emerge. The meter, alliteration and rhyme of “Your blonde/ friend was faceless. She offered me salsa,” is wonderful, especially the reflection that occurs between the Ells and Esses of “faceless” and “salsa”. With this closing, a short poem that has meandered for much of six lines has become strangely evocative, and fun.

Yet sometimes those meandering poems never get anywhere. The incessant chattering of the “Machine” poems in the middle of the book, “Soul Machine,” “Fog Machine,” “Zero Machine,” etc, becomes equally challenging and irritating. Inside these poems’ machine-like, stuttered ambiguity, there’s often, but not always, a sentence or a phrase to linger on and unpack, or at least admire (“Thoughts about women are balloons full of blood,” “The archer in the screen, the starlight in the spine.”) When those arresting images are absent the poems collapse within their naval-gazing structure.

But then, just as
Ghost Machine
begins to feel exhaustingly solipsistic (with its doddering and multitudinous “I”s), Mirov inserts one of the books two lengthier poems, the ten-paged “Eye Ghost.” Here he recycles lines found throughout the book, along with others, where the “I” of the speaker is replaced with “Eye.” What at first seems like a jokey word game evolves into a hypnotic account of lost love and despair. Interpreting the written word “Eye,” repeatedly, is difficult (and if read aloud significantly transforms the experience of the poem), yet the incongruous wording and blunt phrasing propels the narrative quickly from fragment to fragment. Mirov then structures the lines thematically, focusing on the speaker’s fragile romantic relationship. When blended at a combustible pace the speaker’s despair for a lost love, its lingering erotic memories, and the bio-mechanical imagery found most often in the novels of William Gibson, is riveting.

Eye can’t go to sleep. Eye go down on the
breeze. The breeze is wet. Eye taste sea urchin and
spit. Eye can never touch the same breast twice. Eye
can never revisit our forest. Eye touch a night machine
in the shape of a woman. She can only stay
for a moment. Eye put her face inside a bed.
She sucks my nipple while Eye sleep. Eye see the
dead part in everything, shining and dull….

“Eye Ghost” isn’t the only poem of the book that repeats lines. Repetition, the reader quickly learns, is a staple of the book. A technique that links the poems together to imply a larger narrative also serves to create a false sense of recognition. The experience of discovering a repeated line here and there, pages and poems later, is pleasantly unexpected, but ultimately benign. The repetition breeds familiarity, and frankly seems like poetic sleight of hand intended to subtly reinforce the author’s unique phrasing and style. It also gives the impression that these short, staccato lines have been recorded in some master notebook, and the best of them live to be recycled when called upon, for better or worse.

Mirov’s short and punchy style leaves itself vulnerable to mimicry and pastiche (which the poet Zachary Schomburg cops to create a rousing blurb for the back cover). So it’s not surprising that his most memorable and successful poems are the ones that, while still working within his established voice, go a step further than the purely confessional and create a delicate hybrid with the hallucinatory.

In “Ghost Chapter,” Mirov reconstructs the road killing of a deer from the point of view of one of the traumatized assailants.

I have no questions for anyone.
They want to be held by the neon light of an OPEN sign.
They fill their pockets with sand.
They wake up and look at a deer.
I lay the crumpled body next to the convenience store…

Here, Mirov’s stuttered poetry is perfectly suited to recreate the fleeting experience he describes. You can feel the oppressive pull of unconsciousness in these words, as well as the warmth and respite that the convenience store’s OPEN sign projects. Yet in that daze, the speaker still finds the power to take control for the group and Mirov exquisitely portrays just that.

Ghost Machine is a rewarding challenge. Often the ghosts and machines of the titles seem like little more than aesthetic styling, but buried underneath is a fascinating, propulsive book of poetry. Caketrain (, an independent publisher and journal based out of Pittsburgh, has done a phenomenal job transforming and expanding Mirov’s prize-winning chapbook, “Collected Ghosts” (which remains available for free at, into this fantastically designed, dirt cheap paperback.

Justin Hargett, displaced Ohioan, is a writer living in Brooklyn. He works in the publishing industry. More from this author →