American poetry has long been a site of identity play and experimentation: a space where poets, at the best of times, can be both themselves and not themselves simultaneously. Take, for instance, the preface to John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, wherein the author writes:
The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.
Of course, Berryman was a “white American in early middle age” who had “suffered an irreversible loss” (he watched his father shoot himself, as does Henry in Dream Song 145), and many of the poems speak to actual events in the author’s life. And though he explicitly states that the speaker of these poems is “not the poet, not me,” the reader should (rightly) question the veracity of these claims. Are Henry and Berryman truly separate individuals, or does a conflation occur that, at times, renders the character and the poet inseparable?
Around the same time period Berryman was writing 77 Dream Songs (his first incarnation of The Dream Songs), Jack Spicer published After Lorca, which consists of a series of letters between the deceased Federico García Lorca and Jack Spicer, as well as “translations” of the former poet’s work. The opening letter consists of Lorca admonishing Spicer in the third person for taking on a project that appears to be a “waste” and “not worth doing.” In this letter, Spicer dons the mask of Lorca to chastise himself and tellingly write: “Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not García Lorca.” Who is Lorca and who is Spicer? Can we really tell the difference?
Yes, whether Berryman and Henry, or Lorca and Spicer, proper nouns serve not as a marker of specificity, but as a portal for confusion that releases protean identities, constantly shifting in order to keep the reader off-balance. To some extent, the slipperiness of who’s who within the proper noun is summed up in the concluding lines to Ted Berrigan’s poem “Red Shift”:
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, neverthelessI slip softly into the airThe world’s furious song flows through my costume.
The “furious song” of the poet “flows through [his] costume” (i.e. the proper noun), evacuating a stable identity from the nominal marker that usually signals a specificity and leaving him “Alone.” But it also renders him part of a “crowded” multiplicity: a signifier oversaturated with identities.
Ben Mirov, in his second full-length collection of poetry Hider Roser (Octopus Books, 2012), enters the hall of mirrors that Berryman, Spicer, and Berrigan all entered before him, offering a distorted reflection of the poet that challenges reality and basic assumptions about identity.
The book’s epigraph, an excerpt from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Darke Body of Clowds,” first broaches the subject with the lines:
Pity the poor proofreaderwho thinks the darke body of clowdswas my life. (1)
The “dark body of clowds” is not the “life” of the poet, but an ethereal and atmospheric mask that obscures our vision and insight into the author. Soon thereafter, in Hider Roser’s the third poem, Mirov echoes Ruefle’s concept, but through an image that’s antithetical to Ruefle’s “clowds”:
I live in an X-Raycreated years agoby a boy named Ben Mirov. (8)
The reference to Ben Mirov as a third person distances the proper noun from the writer Ben Mirov. But whereas Ruefle employed cloud coverage as a trope for obfuscation of identity, Mirov uses an “X-Ray” of the self as a vehicle for trasnparency: a thing to be seen through and, to some extent, not there. Ben Mirov is nothing but a translucent image created by someone else named Ben Mirov. If these lines did not provide a “clear” enough statement that Ben Mirov might not be, exactly, Ben Mirov, then we’re reminded in the poem “For Ben Mirror” that:
You have no idea who you are.You think you’re someonenamed Ben Mirov. (22)
Ben Mirov might not be Ben Mirov, but guess what? Ben Mirror is not Ben Mirov either. No the Ben in the mirror is not the Ben of the flesh (who, as mentioned, is not Ben Mirov either). Which, of course, begs the question: Who the fuck is Ben Mirov?
One would think, logically, that to discover who Ben Mirov is, one would need to get to the core of Ben Mirov: some center wherein an “authenticate” identity would most likely exist. Hider Roser, it would appear, humorously dangles that insight in front of the reader for a brief moment during the poem “Transmission from the Center of Ben Mirov.” The poem, in its entirety, reads:
I’m looking for the feeling.I know it’s lost inside.I follow the pathpast the crematoriumdown to the beachwhere a school of jellyfishis drying on the sand.No feeling. Nothing.Nothing Nothing Nothing.A big revolving door.A fucking grapefruit.On the beach is a cabin.Of course it’s on fire.None of this is real.The road. The jellyfish.The feeling looping out of itselfnever touching the earth.Maybe the crematorium. (33)
At the center of Ben Mirov, where a foundational identity would be expected (if such a thing even exists), the searcher finds “Nothing Nothing Nothing” and a “revolving door.” Just like Berrigan, whose song flows through him so as to produce a state in which he is “Alone & crowded,” Ben Mirov is both empty and full: he is nothing; but he is also an entrance that allows many masks to come and go, continually, and as they please. Indeed, the collection revels in this identity play.
Again and again, Ben Mirov as a protean identity surfaces throughout Hider Roser in a joyous confusion of naming for the sake of not naming. But if there is no Ben Mirov within the name Ben Mirov, where do these Ben Mirov poems come from? How can a person who does not exist write poems? The answer, it would seem, is simple; as we discover in “The Hole in My Friends Where Ben Mirov Should Be”:
Nothing perched on the edgeand reached it ghostly handinto the void inside meand pulled out a poem. (58)
An external nothingness reaches its ghost hands into a void within a proper noun and pulls out a poem. What could be simpler than that?