If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving is an ambitious project which took Brendan Lorber twenty years to write. Its themes range from philosophy in its many branches, e.g., existentialism, ontology, epistemology, etc., as well as science, history, art, culture, capitalism, ethics, religion. And there are many meditations on love, nature, morality, death, time, all of which Lorber casts within his own wry, clever definitions. Branching out into facts or aphorisms, each logically structured thought leading to the next with unexpected syntactical twists, these poems require you to discard preconceived notions of reading and simply flow along.
The caesuras—what you might call an “undercurrent,” or what Lorber calls “a gestational realm,” “charged field,” and “William Blake’s grain of sand”—set within each line compel participation, play on and against thought, memory, imagination, emotions, Lorber often revealing what is unsaid, what is exterior to the poem. The formidability and near-absurdist pith of Lorber’s work lie here: you may understand parts of a poem but a whole remains elusive, the whole nevertheless serving as a frame for every phrasal unit. All the words and broken phrases protrude from the page’s surface, while the reasoning and flood of pictures remain dormant below, mysterious and jarring—an analogue of sorts to surrealist automatism or Michael Cheval’s absurdist paintings.
If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving is sectioned into four parts: “Morning,” “Afternoon,” “Evening,” “Night,” and “Morning.” In “Lucky Break of Day,” Lorber sets the stage for what is to come:
The nor’easter shut down the subways
so whatever prevented me from going
to your party was canceled including
your party and any means to get there
Everything we say hides what we mean
but also creates a little space to discover it
Like clouds get the blame but it’s the sun
that blots out all the stars even on a perfect day
Even perfection can’t be a thing until
the day is tallied and no longer happening
Like a scenic road and the overlooks with
shrines to whoever didn’t quite make the turn
In line two of the first stanza, the word “whatever” indicates both the wind and subway; and in line three it could be read as “your party was canceled,” or the wind or train was canceled. And while it’s logically correct to say the party is canceled, it also is not. The play within these sentences is ingenious.
The next stanza could be read as referencing “whatever” again, this time suggesting it is not about wind or subway or party, but is instead a negation or, rather, the author’s insistence to write what he wants. At the same time, it sets the stage for how to interpret the gaps in the poems that follow, spaces that may frustrate meaning, coherence, etc., where, nevertheless, the invisible is named. As Lorber warns: There is no perfection.
“The Butterfly Defect” in the section of “Afternoon” finds Lorber brilliantly attempting to define birth: “Birth is the defect we have in common,” said commonality offsetting supposed differences, which prevent us from understanding each other. Lorber continues to meditate on love, death, which according to him is imposed by the living. “It is cool / for us / to talk to the dead / but the dead / are left to wonder / why they / always get cornered / by the kind of person / the living don’t want to talk to.” The dead here, seemingly impassive, are calculating, very much reflecting the living of today’s world.
In the “Evening” section, Lorber writes about relationships, migraines, sex, nostalgia, naming, the father, and more. “Devotional” finds Lorber endeavoring to define time: “No two / clocks ever / agree / and / even if they did / with what?” Time here is not an entity to be measured, rather an unwieldy swirl of emotions, ambiguous moments: “There has / to be some / measure / of what / I’m snapping out / of / The way / you are always / about / to describe / ambiguity or / something / but don’t / Or maybe / you do.”
In “Manufactured Discontent,” Lorber critiques the capitalism and slavery in America. In his view, America refuses to face its utter moral failure, its tendency toward blindness, ignorance, forgetfulness. Lorber asks: “The kids / in the phone factory / Would they be happy / you dropped / yours / in the toilet / at the bar? The factory / in a country / where the word / slave is illegal / because slaves / are too / important / to acknowledge.” The poem references American so-called exceptionalism, exposes the clever lie that makes its citizens believe in an individualism and political power that doesn’t truly exist.
“Morning” offers a bleak view of the future, the poem “Down From Now On” a kind of prophesy: “Daybreak seems like a bad way / to start the day / We need a mop / before it’s even begun.” Lorber, like many lyrical poets, loves reporting the weather, and here posits that air is what connects us throughout history. Each breath a person exhales is linked to another, so that “You’ve got a little Lincoln and I’ve got a little you.” In “For Everyone Just Wants To Be Loved, Little,” Lorber provides a unique view of rain: “if rain / is mostly / dry air between / drops / it’s not the storm that soaks us / but our own / wind-swept interior / endlessly cradled / and rocking open.”
To fully understand the complexity, intertextual references, and formal ingenuity of If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving would require as many years as it took Lorber to write it, much like Finnegans Wake, which took James Joyce took seventeen years to write, “to keep the critics busy for three hundred years.” If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving brims with dry wit, deep philosophy, candid reflection, and imaginative mystery; its steely tone encouraging readers to discover and think for themselves as they read these poems, yes, but also to discover the world.
Meiko Ko‘s works have been published by the Blue Lyra Review, the Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, the Columbia Journal, Epiphany, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Litro Magazine, Heavy Feather Review (Best of the Net 2019 Nomination), Five:2:One Magazine, Breadcrumbs Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Scoundrel Time (Pushcart Prize nomination), and is forthcoming in failbetter. She was long listed for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize, some of her reviews can be found at Tupelo Quarterly and Heavy Feather Review. She is currently doing her MFA at Bennington College.