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
In Night’s “Signals 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.
if this is paradise why are we still driving? by Brendan Lorber. Subpress, June 2018. 145 pages. $14.00, paper.
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.