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January 16, 2019

Brendan Lorber's Playlist for His Poetry Collection "If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving"

Cork Wars

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Brendan Lorber's impressive poetry collection If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving repeatedly transforms the banal into the beautiful and thought-provoking.

In his own words, here is Brendan Lorber's Book Notes music playlist for his book If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving:

For twenty years, If this is paradise why are we still driving knocked on heaven’s door from the other side, demanding to be let back down to earth where it belongs. Tonight may be dark, the hallelujah cold and broken, but the candles are just right, the moon is full, and the snapped air says help is on the way in the form of human supernovas ready to make the rumors true. Obz If this is paradise has its own prosody, but just as the real fun of going to a reading is the hang that follows, this playlist is a pretty sweet after-party. Some songs are called out by the book, but many live in the background, the no-nonsense roadies who set the stage so the poems can stage the upset.

On the Wings of Love / Jeffrey Osborne

In my poem Completely Almost I say: “There was a radio station that played nothing but love songs / that tormented everyone who loved songs but people not so much.” Among the songs on WPIX was “On the Wings of Love,” which later I’d hear as a musical consort to Frank O’Hara’s “Sleeping on the Wing” and which instilled in me a healthy skepticism of love. I mean, if it’s so great why all this musical propaganda? I imagine Osborne reading O’Hara thinking, blast! He’s exposed my naïveté. And O’Hara listening to Osborne with a sarcastic smirk that turns slowly to a thin, wistful smile, as if as if gives way to if only. The structure of the song is a totally insane litany that opens and closes all the lines with the title. A confident hero who says this will work, trust me and it does despite the doubters, haters, and solipsists sipping sorrow from their Solo® cups.

What’s Love Got to Do with It / Tina Turner

My poem “What’s love want to do with it,” like many of the others in the book, gestures towards joy despite the evidence that it will never be yours. And towards pain despite (and as) your sheer delight. Love, like it or not, has everything to do with it.

4’33” / John Cage

I’m an expert in creating the conditions for something to happen and then not letting it. There are blank spaces within almost every line of If this is Paradise why are we still driving where tension builds, where the poem takes a breath and stares back at you unblinking, and is like, your move, dear reader. You become the missing part, facilitating a phrase’s new meaning in the light of the one that follows (which in turn gets recast by the next). Silence is the retort, the cauldron, the fiery carburetor in which regular music/language is held at bay and the mute gives way to transmutation. John Cage’s masterpiece understands this alchemy. It’s an ultimate interrogation of the listener, a composition for any instruments in which those instruments are not played for four minutes and 33 seconds. But silence is never silence, it’s a vacuum into which rushes everything at the edges. The moment-to-moment reels away and the indescribable takes the wheel. From here, it’s neither right nor left that we turn; we turn into something new.

Suzanne / Leonard Cohen

The blank spaces of If this is paradise are also Suzanne’s river as in:

And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you've always been her lover

The river has other answers too. But first, let’s have some tea and oranges that come all the way from China.

After Hours main theme / Howard Shore

Shore’s score for Scorsese’s 80’s SoHo shadow odyssey is made of what penetrates the darkness, which is just more darkness. Late night footsteps around the corner, something dripping, faint piano through the wall, and a ticking clock that reminds you how far we are from daylight or anything else that might dispel the air of spooky, isolated gallows romanticism. The film, shot a few blocks from my childhood home, came out just in time to make my first dead of night adolescent forays at once more enticing and terrifying. If fear and desire were any closer, they’d be behind each other, which they are, upholstered in steam vents and cobblestones. My poem “Protocol and Deviance” is happy to walk alongside and help you locate the weird overlap between Rumi’s longings and those of then-Mayor Ed Koch. It’s a great score for when you’re trapped in someone else’s dreamcatcher or stuck in the kissing booth with the missing tooth.

Dark, Dear Heart / Mary Margaret O’Hara

Why in the darkness do I see so clearly… Out of breath and into the depths, her haunting, halting quaver of a voice reaches halfway to you and you realize nobody else has ever even come that close. The heart’s dive through high notes.

Dancing in the Dark / Bruce Springsteen

It feels so good to live in the moment of most profound grief, confusion, utter defeat and find yourself rising up to dance, to be fired up with that which can not be but is. Every Springsteen song has this total catharsis. But only “Dancing in the Dark” has the throwaway line: “There's a joke here somewhere and it's on me,” which is quickly followed with, and changed by: “I'll shake this world off my shoulders. Come on baby this laugh's on me.” Right now, someone is dancing to this song and when they are done, someone in another time zone gets up to carry the dark flame. The Keats of New Jersey’s negative capability. We are lucky to live on a planet where this happens.

Bound by the Beauty / Jane Siberry

Sometimes being bound is to be tied down. Sometimes it’s all aspirational movement, like a Brooklyn-bound train if Brooklyn were beautiful. Siberry bounds past the utilitarian teleology of art for life’s sake, then past art for art's sake, to a fragrant forest floor we can lie on and take on life for art's sake. In the supine alpine, we are bound by, bound for, and bound to hear the sweetest, constant rearrange.

Don’t Worry Be Happy (minor key cover) / Ryan O’Neil

Major key songs rearranged to minor is a marvelous genre that reveals the secret despair inside joy, and so makes a more fulfilling joy possible, if not immediately attainable. Bobby McFerrin’s a cappella tablespoon of simple syrup from 1988 is a frustrating emblem of that moment’s bright neo-liberal veneer. This diatonic version wakes the diabolic and sets it free. The opposite action, minor key songs stepped up to the majors, is also beautifully tragic. Like being asked to set the table and then setting it on fire.

We Found Love / Rhianna and Love Is All Around / Sonny Curtis

What does “in” mean? Did love emerge from a hopeless place and make it all better, or did we find our love had arrived at a hopeless place? Is this secretly a cover of “Love Is All Around,” Sonny Curtis’s theme to Mary Tyler Moore? No. Nobody would think that. But if there’s a most hopeless place, I’ve always considered Mary Richard’s Minneapolis to be the place furthest from it.

Movie and TV Themes: Little House on the Prairie, Star Trek TOS, Gilligan’s Island, Star Wars
Theme music, the distillation of years into ninety seconds, are more attuned to the forces of the universe than the shows they introduce. These songs have walk-ons throughout the book, especially in “Little house a priori,” “The Galileo 7,” “I am the time traveling mayor of the three hour tour,” and “Townies of Dagobah in the Renaissance.”

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space / Spritualized

Spiritualized’s junkie-paced overlapping of lyrics is an anti-round. A heartbreakingly broken-keeled Rimbaudian row row row your drunken boat and gently break the keel. Falling to the bottom of the sea and falling in love are the best ways to solve your biggest problems with even bigger ones. My poem “Consolation and reprisal” does a lot of things, and some of them it does as a sort of mission control for Spiritualized’s non-cover of Bowie’s Major Tom.

Everything in Its Right Place / Radiohead

“Consolation and reprisal” also works in conversation with Radiohead’s Hitchcockian opening track to Kid A. Hitchcockian in that the director said you should always say the opposite of what you mean. In the song, Thom Yorke intones: “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon… Everything in its right place… There are two colors in my head… What is that you tried to say.” My poem says “What I meant to say was / misunderstanding is what makes / contact possible” That is to say, a wound is not merely where the light comes in, but the shared darkness that makes love likely.

Super-Sonic / The Brian Jonestown Massacre

“This song is about you and my life now without you…” A perfect breakup song, when it’s yourself you’re breaking up with. The internal departure that happens every day in the slow peel of identities to make way for the void, or sometimes for new identities. How many ch-ch-changes before I becomes an other? It’s like existential Jenga. How many parts can you remove from something (a house, a relationship, a self) before it’s not that thing anymore?

Gratulemur Christicole / Italian 15th Century Chanson / Performed by Ensemble Ars Italica

Everything Edith Piaf did, or J. S. Bach for that matter, is definitely a cover of this polyphonic chanson with the deep organ riffs. Maybe not everything, but “La Vie en Rose” rose from the same fifteenth century techniques that also unlocked Johann’s keys. The poems in If this is paradise couldn’t exist without the poems that came before them. The good ones by other people, and the early disasters of my own. I think Piaf would agree that to really regret rien doesn’t mean making no mistakes, it means making enough of them that you can see clearly by their light. Within this six hundred year old incantation is a kind of duty to be derelict.

It Was Just One of Those Things / Ella Fitzgerald

Speaking of Italian treasures, nobody at Verve Records knew Ella Fitzgerald’s 1958 birthday gig in Rome had been recorded until it was discovered in their vaults thirty years later. And now we all get to join her for that trip to the moon on gossamer wings.

Supernova / Liz Phair

Nothing like walking around a new city listening to music that makes you walk a little faster and maybe spin around unselfconsciously. And to further the unselfconsciousness, nothing like mishearing the lyrics. Phair’s Whipsmart was my soundtrack to daily rambles among the homes of Bay Area poets a few years ago. Turns out “And your lips are sweet and slippery like a sheriff’s bare red ass” is not how the song goes. Turns out she was never channeling the angry love-despite-yourself of a clever but morally compromised Jim Thompson character. Turns out her version of pop music is not based on the universe of Thomson’s Pop 1280. But because I regret my mistakes least of all, I still hear the totally wrong line when it comes around. The secret of my success is failure.

Blue Nun / The Beastie Boys

What’s the Beastie Boys’ secret? Naturally, I’ll say it’s the unsung members—the ones they sampled over their many years. Especially CIA-operative turned wine connoisseur Peter Sichel. (Adam Yauch was friends with his daughter and Sichel was happy to let them use his voice.) “The Last Beastie Boy” is an elegy to their accelerant methodology and a peripheral ode to the ill boutique of brass-monkeyed intergalactic joy—submissive, open, and immune to the bell’s toll until they weren’t.

The Planets / Gustav Holst

Peter Sichel was always pairing wines with experiences. My poem “Heliophelia” works well with “The Planets.” My musical chairs of the spheres is populated with the real original cast of Star Wars: persecuted scientists like Copernicus and Ptolemy. And Holst wrote what might be the original soundtrack long before John Williams’s parents ever met. I mean, Williams is brilliant and his works are all his, but the gusto of Gustav’s gravity, wells is pretty undeniable. Not that that’s bad. Knowing we live on a planet shaped by the vacuum all around it, the effect we have on one another is most welcome.

Bruce’s Philosopher’s Song / Monty Python

I was tricked. I thought a degree in philosophy would lead to a life of endless Monty Python sketches. Instead, it lead to a sketchy life in which every day I more and more come to resemble the It’s… man who opens each episode. This song however, and a flask in your boot, is a pretty good (if not entirely accurate) Rosetta stone for any theoretical references in If this is Paradise. The Hegel reference on page 37 however needs its own translation: “It looks like your face has undergone the Hegelian dialectic with a 2x4” Also, while there are a lot of Rationalists referenced in “The new water” on page 49 (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz), do NOT drink the titular water as it is from the Gowanus Canal.

Hallelujah / Jeff Buckley

The original Sin-é on St. Marks Place, where Jeff Buckley used to sing, was only a few feet wide. Exactly the distance of a quiet whisper. You’d feel his breath when he sang and your beer was going to get knocked over when he swung his guitar neck. The intimate infinity in that grain of sand of a room opened up whenever he worked his way to the finale. Through bitter valleys where hallelujah becomes hardly knew ya, then back up to where beauty and the moonlight overthrew you. I hung there every Monday to hear him sing with some other friends of mine like Susan McKeown of Chanting House and Star Drooker of Native Tongue, and we’d all have a drink after and try to figure out what it was, that secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.

Kathy’s Song / Simon & Garfunkel

I like the double-nostalgia of “Kathy’s Song,” written long ago by a now-defunct band, about a relationship ended still earlier. But “Kathy’s Other Song” is a nostalgic nostrum, an antidote to the oldest of -algias. It’s dedicated to Adam DeGraff and Edmund Berrigan as they were when I first met them years ago in San Francisco while misunderstanding Liz Phair. The unstated third dedication in the poem is to the late sound artist Dale Sherrard, now unfathomably dead, and all the things he taught me inadvertently and on purpose, about the depths of loss.

Don’t Cry for Me Argentina / Andrew Lloyd Weber

In “I will die in exile do not follow me,” I argue it’s simpler to make the entire world love you than any one person in it. In the commercial for Evita on Broadway, a dying Eva Perón sings and is interrupted by Che who angrily hisses the word ask:

“Don’t cry for me Argentina —
You were supposed to have been immortal. That’s all they wanted. Not much to ask for.”

Been Caught Stealing / Jane’s Addiction

Hard to think of stealing without this song. The poem “We are so lucky to live on this planet” despite it all alludes to not being punished for stealing, but for enjoying it.

Time After Time / Cindy Lauper

We never quite get it right, but not getting it right means we have to keep trying, and the attempt, not the result, is perfection. We wind up wounded, unwound by the wind, but if you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting. If you’ve listened this far, we’ll probably get along, which is so unusual. Precious even, to be out of time, not like the clock says it’s over, but to be over the clock, and thus being over the moon is next.

Brendan Lorber and If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving links:

the author's website

Brooklyn Rail interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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