Micah Zevin on Brendan Lorber’s if this is paradise why are we still driving?

if this is paradise why are we still driving? by Brendan Lorber. Subpress, June 2018. 145 pages. $14.00, paper.

Can we ever escape the hidden meanings of existence, the state of saying or doing one thing and meaning another? What to make of the silences, the pauses, fissures, elisions, we find in conversation or on the page? What can be mined from what’s missing? How will the gaps or empty spaces be filled if they can be filled at all? Brendan Lorber’s if this is paradise why are we still driving? playfully engages all of these mortality-infused questions and contradictions. Each of the collection’s poems’ structure and style throws you off-balance, compelling you to laugh or cry, overcome with emotion as you pause for breath within the silent spaces, within the deadly the noise often taking over our minds and bodies: what we understand as our lives, fragile as they are.

Speaking of breaks, “Lucky Break of Day” establishes the book’s overall off-kilter sense of mystery: “Everything we say hides what  we mean / but also creates a little space.” Every short koan- or haiku-like passage makes you pause and think, allowing for both reverie and open-ended interpretation, not to mention multiple meanings profoundly absurd or aphoristic or both. Throughout, Lorber employs humor to both serious and seriously hilarious ends. In “Bird Above the Fire,” the contradictions, the humorous and the profound, crash into each other, offering one philosophical musing or revelation after another:

There’s a joy to encryption but it’s neither
in cracking the code    nor preventing
transmission  Like any language  to sink
into the sweetness of  there’s a lot
to be said   for what can’t be understood

What makes my shoes  the shiniest is
the rain  that ruins them

In “Violence and Optimism,” the language of negation is foregrounded, employing words like “less” and “absence” and “not” and “neither” and “nothing” to convey the doubt pervasive in everything we do, the seeming polarities of hope and hopelessness revealed to be intrinsically linked to and relying on each other. The poem asks whether we can remain hopeful and human despite the senselessness, the inhumanity that surrounds us: “In the absence / of a heart  maybe we can be led  from the goodness / of some other part”; “We have so much in common  but not with each other”; and “To feel less less / let’s talk to our kitchen objects  as the surveilled objects.”

The book has five sections: Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Night, Morning, suggesting a loop, yes, but with a hiccup. Throughout Afternoon, Lorber engagingly explores our humanity and mortality: “Birth   is the defect   we have  in common”; “What the world calls romance  destroys what / romance  could make of the world”; “Writing to a person  and never showing them reveals / the truth  as long as nobody’s allowed to see it.” Lorber’s needle-like precision is impressive, pricking the reader throughout. In “Consolation and Reprisal,” Lorber employs a method I’ll call “the culmination of all things,” a device where phrases like “by this I mean” generate a surprise or magical ending. For example, “What I   meant to say was / misunderstanding   is what makes / contact possible” and “Yet what / else is there  when every definition / of sublation  contradicts the one / that came before.” It’s another poem attesting to Lorber’s ability to offset dry factual statements, imbue them with weighty uncertainty.

Evening finds Lorber addressing how we avoid things we intended to do, the ways we contradict ourselves and continue to keep things hidden so that no one or nobody can cause or see our pain. This is revealed in “Bad Back in the Winter of Mirrored Snow” in lines like “I meant to show you   you had a heart / after all  by breaking it” and “Let’s build a life  on an idea we’ll spend our life / trying to avoid / as though   this were a diary written / on behalf    of a total stranger.” Sadness, humor, and philosophizing abound in “Maximum Overshare of a Tudor Village”:

That the bagel guy
knows my bagel    is adequate proof  there is a world
in which to exist  and that this is brunch  but the more
I eat  the less I am convinced  of anything except  
that nobody wants   to be me  but me   and even that
just barely

In Night’sSignals from the Universe That This Is the Alternate One,” Lorber addresses and questions and attempts to answer what we view as normal and abnormal in this consumerist/capitalist world we inhabit, where morality is seemingly always under question. “Maybe nothing systemic  can be moral  or maybe on fire    down the embankment  is the one justifiable / position remaining Totally normal   to require a safe word / before going  to Whole Foods   Except what’s normal / for what doesn’t exist.” In poems like these and many others in the collection, the narrator is burdened with doubts about anything he knows, doubting even factual or scientific knowledge: “Is gravity based on fear   or charity?” In “Manufactured Discontent,” Lorber confronts himself and his audience about our consumerism, a culture where significant problems are ignored or pushed aside when recognized: “There’s comfort  in knowing / worse monsters  than us exist / but only a monster  would be okay / with that” and “The kids  in the phone factory / Would they be happy  you dropped / yours   in the toilet  at the bar?”

In Morning, Lorber plays with ideas of time and place and religion and focuses on how we deceive ourselves in search of some unreachable redemption. With any luck, the morning is something we will always return to; it represents what is possible or impossible within its newness. In “Are You God? A Checklist,” the narrator humorously theorizes: “Perhaps monotheism   was invented / by a high school senior   with mono” and “The future arrives  as it always does  This time / in the moment  the story abandons any possibility of redemption   and the abandonment / makes redemption possible.” “Cayman Adjunct” joyfully reiterates that we are beyond repair, that we continue to mislead one another in life; moreover, the very stating of this is misleading. “Maybe thirst   is just the thing we have   thirst / and dying of it” and “We all deceive each other  but not in the ways   we think and / any admission of duplicity  only compounds  the wind  that / sends us  further off course  over the surge walls.”

Brendan Lorber’s profound, mysterious, and humorous if this is paradise why are we still driving? is a revelation, that is, revelatory language without easy revelations, that is, with revelations that reveal as much as they further conceal, confuse, and delight.

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Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, with his wife, a playwright. He has recently published articles and poems at The Otter, Newtown Literary Journal and Blog, Poetry and Politics, Reality Beach, Jokes Review, Post (Blank), American Journal of Poetry, and The Tower Journal. He created/curates an open mic/poetry prompt workshop called The Risk of Discovery Reading Series now at Blue Cups.

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