Reviewed July 1, 2013 by Daniel Moysaenko.
The poetry of religious enthusiasm and delirium, or of Blakean pursuit after an “Image of truth new born” (that is: art divorced of abstraction yet otherworldly in its performance) is mostly relegated to topical study, hardly practiced now. Recent poetry largely participates in the sensory world and human feeling, while many academics still seem enamored with the sublime and one’s negotiation between this world and a dictatory other.
Ben Mirov’s first full-length book, Hider Roser, in talking to itself, enters a new dialogue with the above concerns. Energetic and clear, Mirov’s poems wrestle with language as it attempts to direct the poet, to hurry him away from concrete or waking life and carry him, as Blake says, “over Mountains & Valleys, Which are not Real, in a Land of Abstraction where Spectres of the Dead wander.”
At times, the speaker willingly journeys into that realm. “I’m looking for the feeling. / I know it’s lost inside. / I follow the path,” the speaker begins his narrative, “On the beach is a cabin. // Of course it’s on fire. / None of this is real.” In other moments, he commands “the poems to act right. / I command them to chip the object // from the light,” releasing the tangible from the sublime, “but they do not respond. They will not / adjust the amplifier. They will not // attend the reading at Pete’s.” Here, the speaker succeeds in resisting digression into the abstract. I’m roped in to Pete’s momentarily. I’m not swept up in the supernatural or in a poet’s difficult-to-defend ecstatic experience. Ultimately, though, the speaker fails to rule over his poems—“They never speak. They stay exactly where they are.”
This animate meditation performs a double take and allows a glimpse into realistic monologue, into a balance between prophetic dictation and writerly direction. The poem “Like a Waif Beneath the Clock Tower on a Winter Night” begins “the Spirit is weak. It tries / to paint lemons. Like an idiot / it tries to paint something real,” invoking that suspicion of abstraction and condemning a Muse later thanked:
Staring at the moon for hours,
finding a seat at the opera,
whirlpool into the camera,
thinking of Proust, then laying down
greenish gray. 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.
Hider Roser plays with materiality, reference, dream-like visions, thought, and language, either in commune with a dubious and nagging spirit or in frank sharing of the day-to-day.
In “Dove Life,” the reader experiences words taking hold of one’s thoughts. A simple change (perhaps) from “love” to “dove” results in:
If your wife is built of pigeons
your wife will disappear. Dove life
flutters out of the abyss, caresses
the face-plate on your spacesuit
and flies away with your oxygen tank.
The hypothetical becomes declarative, as if I cannot argue that my wife is not built of pigeons here in the poem “Dove Life.” That is what language has prompted, where the reader’s positioned.
The speaker’s subjectivity manages to control other poems’ movement, however. In “Cluster,” he marvels at scientific fact, the differences between proof and assumption, saying, “It would be foolish to assume / that anything is composed of tiny dots. / That dots make up the universe” and “It’s impossible / to enter the house and hand the cube / of light to William Butler Yeats.” Such governance of language and consideration, near determination of natural law, eases into passive observation:
Time flows up and down and around
the tiny dots. Birds fly out of the trees.
I don’t care for perfectly clear weather.
I keep myself busy all day.
So what was foolish to assume earlier in the poem is simply true, independent of one’s understanding. Not indeterminate. Time flows. Birds fly. And the speaker welcomes now-visible complexity in what he can’t control—physics, nature, weather. Meanwhile, keeping himself busy, simplicity emerges in what he can control—actions, thoughts, short sentences free of extraneous words or punctuation.
Multilayered content and voice call for direct language in these poems. Mirov bounces from particular to particular while maintaining a broad sense of fiction:
At the darkest parts of the ocean
there are creatures just like us.
The poet Tu Fu felt this
in the snowy mountain of his heart
though never wrote about it.
I feel informed, presented with an “Image of truth new born,” left at the edge of metaphor that promises to tip in opposite directions. Truth, fabrication. Like deep-sea creatures, snow can be aglow, frigid, charming, and dangerous.
Mirov is not saved from such duplicity. Moreover, clean binary splits into three, four, and so on. The author’s name becomes a mutable character, word, bystander, means of transmission while remaining the originator of the words I’m reading. Many poem titles complicate his personage, such as “The Poem Addresses Ben Mirov in a State of Inconsolable Grief,” “Transmission from the Center of Ben Mirov,” “The Hole in My Friends Where Ben Mirov Should Be,” and “Ben Mirror (1888-1935)” with the birth and death dates of Fernando Pessoa. The speaker morphs into a nonbeing, an instrument for instruments, “Like the symmetry / I give the mirror.”
But other poems reassure the reader with unmediated human intimacy. One begins, like a story of escape told over the phone, “I had been reading all day and couldn’t feel my body.” Another pulls the reader into the writing of the poem, spending time “with these words in my head / and now here they are // like snowmelt,” continuing in conversation, “Are you still there?” This person-to-person communiqué also has the capacity for humor, as in the zany title “You May Not Know This But In His Youth James Tate Was Some Sort of Champion Swimmer!” or another poem’s lines, “When I think of old age / and loosing my mind // I am not really afraid / of using commas.”
So minute tinkering and bold emotion find places in Hider Roser: “The poems are dressed in nothing / like diamonds.” Here, a line break plays with the delicate distinction between “nothing like” and “nothing, like” while exercising laconic though rich simile. (How “dressed” are diamonds visually, metaphorically, culturally, socio-politically?) I juxtapose that technical care with a grander poem’s end:
What am I trying to tell you I don’t know.
I am trying to tell you about my friends.
The way they have no body or face.
The way they cannot save the Great Barrier Reef
or the people in the cities or anything.
They cannot even save themselves.
They walk slowly into the thunderhead.
They turn around and look me in the face and I am scared.
I can barely breathe. Then I notice
we’ve arrived and the porch is coated in rain.
Comforting cadence paired with the enormity of “cannot save” collapses with a moan in the last line’s image. While such detail should be dwarfed by saving the Great Barrier Reef or marching into a thunderhead, weighty concerns shrink under the wet porch. The speaker—unaware of time’s passing and the ongoing, or recent, rainfall—is struck by the consequence of the rain. It’s palpable and continuous, as the porch is coated and will be even without rain.
Such continuity in reality and language seems to frighten the speaker. “Night is a puzzle with only one piece,” he concludes while struggling to fall asleep, reflecting, “If the sun comes up / I won’t be a different person.” He laments insomnia, as if sleep discontinues and then creates a new subjectivity. Or else he concedes that one won’t change with the change of a day.
Marrying such examination with prophetic instruction (“When the train // enters the tunnel ask the waiter / for tea with milk”), linking the empirical and oneiric, Hider Roser renews the poet’s place between this world and another ruled by language, where sublimity exists in the confluence of possibility and impossibility. This is a book written by the imagination.
Simply put, Mirov invites the reader to listen to a degree others shy from. He does so without being boring or frivolous. And I sense the speaker is not afraid to engage the poet’s traditional life—possessed, ecstatic, demanding, intelligent, prophetic—in conjunction with a contemporary life of objects, sci-fi, self-doubt, and postmodern suspicion.
He rearranges horse rider to produce hider roser, hidden, blossoming, “which means something / you will never understand / with only a few minutes left.” At the asymptote of thing and meaning, feeling loops “out of itself / never touching the earth,” though one can partake in both signifier and signified. Mirov does—“Driving / a car and driving a star / are almost the same.” But Hider Roser resides in a place of feeling richer than theory. Mirov sails into himself, possessing the bodily at the cusp of the ghostly as only good poets can. He calls:
my gurney to the edge of the lake.
Lake is such a beautiful word.
I’d like to die with it inside me.