Brendan Lorber’s book of poems If this is paradise why are we still driving? was published by the Subpress Collective in 2018. In this essay about his influences, he talks about his joy of not reading—about all that interferes. Lorber offers a tumult of observations and anecdotes that together suggest the shapeshifting paradoxes to be discovered in his book.
I don’t want to brag, but I took first-year German twice. So I’ve got a pretty solid foundation for the language. There are 20 vocab words I have down. Twice as down as even a native speaker who only ever had to learn them once. It’s impressive. But I bring this up not to make you think I’ve got mad smarts. A quick conversation with me reveals lots of things, but smarts only as a verb, as in: “Man my head really smarts after talking to that guy.”
As I write this for you, this essay about reading, I’m thinking you already read too much. So do I. How much is too much? Even now, writing this, I’m also reading the coffee shop wall which wants us to know their coffee trade is the fairest in all the land. I read another sign: their manager meets the farmers twice a year. I’m losing the thread of the essay, daydreaming about a much more artful, shade-grown life. A plumber’s van backs up outside, awash in plumber puns. (“Call us when you’ve got nowhere to go,” and so forth.) I’ve got a sinking feeling the plumber’s life is better than the jet-setting coffee shop manager as it affords a great many opportunities for jokes, filthy and otherwise. Say “pipes” five times and then look at the next passerby without giggling.
Giggling, I return to this essay, my mind redirected and made attentive by all these language fragments, but only as a window is highly redirected by and attentive to the brick going through it. It’s an agitated state, wound up and spun off. An emergency in the meditation, primed for immediate response. The signs, vans, ambient conversations, social feeds, even other people’s glimpsed books, are all hecklers interrupting what your mind was in the midst of, and they demand a pithy comeback before your mind gets back to itself.
This state allows for swift connections, the way cracks in a smashed window intersect each other in the spiderweb of fractures. But chronic emergency prevents looking out the window.
There are swift connections available only in the cacophony, the way a spiderweb of cracks makes the window visible. But only at the expense of what’s beyond. Like in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law when Roberto, learning English, points at a chalk window he’s just drawn on the jail cell wall and asks, “Do you say, in English, ‘I look at the window, or do you say, ‘I look out the window?’” and Jack replies, “In this case, Bob, you’d say, ‘I look at the window.’” Your mind only accelerates though it only gets as far as the wall. Welcome to Dr. Seuss’ dystopian sequel Oh the Places You’ll Almost Go. But what if you want to go further, to look through the window, or through your own surfaces to who you really are.
The solution is… Tropical Fantasy. Your flavor. Your fantasy. No, that’s what written on the truck that’s now blocking my view out the window. I’m always worried my fantasies are the wrong fantasies. The truck has confirmed this. I like orange juice, but not in an erotic way. If there’s a universally accepted platonic form of Sexy, my drowsy consumption of orange juice in the morning is about as far from it as you can get.
No, this truck is blocking the solution. And beyond it, on the bus stop ad, is still more interference. The language through which we make our way is less an ocean than a high pressure hose. It creates one curious circumstance after another, but ultimately it’s the same flavor of circumstance. The same fantasy. A bus zips by with an ad for some show that itself has commercials. Though the kind of reading that gets beyond all this is slower than the bus, it’s much harder to catch. But without it, it’s almost impossible to plumb the depths, which I say only because that damn plumber’s van is back.
In the search for silence, my inability to speak German is one of my strongest skills. Yeats arose and went to Innisfree, where peace comes dropping slow. Ghost Dog went to the Ice Cream truck, where the guy spoke only French. Adam DeGraff went to a Northern California monastery for 30 days of silence. (I may be misremembering this, but for the sake of argument, let’s say this happened.) I bought a ticket to Berlin and rented a room overlooking a park half-filled with people buying and selling heroin (I think) and half-filled with parents and their little kids (I think). I say, “I think,” because I’m not entirely sure what was going on in that park. Or anywhere. That I was uncertain of everything was the only thing I was certain of.
I went to restaurants and tried to say “table for one, please”: im Deutsche, which either came out as “one erection for the chicken pleasure,” or worse, came out correctly, eliciting an opaque, very fast, extremely one-sided German conversation. After some time, I was able to communicate the necessities, but the unnecessities became background music. Signs on every building, ads on the U-Bahn, and clever t-shirt klugerscherzen, all became decorative elements unless I thought about them long after the fact. And even then, I only got the gist. The passing snippets of street conversation were gentle rhythms.
The world inside my mind got very quiet. I wandered the streets for hours, lost out of translation, where a single conceptual thread could follow itself according to its own self-ordained path. And after such a day, when I sat in that park at sunset to read, it was although I’d been setting up my mind all day to receive guests. The books came into my consciousness where they were able to make themselves at home.
At the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum I bought a book by Buckminster Fuller. The tensegrity of his constellations arranged themselves as never before. I also read Filip Marinovich who’s electric genius lights the dark interior of all our myths. Everything mythic and otherwise is mostly the space inside itself. This includes ourselves and our lonely atoms. Filip knows that’s where the magic happens, and in the silence you can see where Filip happens.
The next year, I went to Budapest. Hungarian or Magyar Nyelv—“Hungarian” in Hungarian—is a language that should not be. It’s the platypus of languages. Please do not correct me on this. I know I am wrong. Everything I know about this language is wrong. In Berlin, I could mostly tell what category of place a place was. But in Budapest, I couldn’t tell if a joint was a special massage parlor or a preschool until I was in it and either way people looked at me like, Why are you here? I found what I believed to be a restaurant one night but the maitre d’ apologetically refused to seat me and I still don’t understand why.
A friend wrote out instructions for ordering fröccs, a kind of wine spritzer but not. It was two pages long because you have to specify the size of glass and the ratio of wine to spritz. The largest, most winey, involves telling the bartender something about having to fix your own pipes because the super drunk building super drank one and fell down the stairs trying to get to your apartment. I think. You have to say “pipes” in Hungarian like five times to the bartender and not giggle. The other drink, which is easier to order, is Zwack Unicum, which sounds like a very personal happy unicorn-based experience. By the time I left Budapest, I was no closer to understanding the language of my surroundings than when I started.
And so, even more than in Berlin, the books I sat with became almost illuminated manuscripts. I was able to read Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood so deeply and free of interfering language that I was transported from the contingencies of this moment into a broader world where possibility exists as an essential form. I also read Garret Lansing’s Soluble Forest. Free of interfering language, I was granted arrival at another realm whose entrance, fragile enough to be dispelled by the ding of an incoming text, leads to an interior so much more solid than whatever passes for this world.
Many, many years ago, I went to the little Italian hilltop town of Chianni with Tracey McTague, before she’d written the visionary Supernatural. Also before cellphones and GPS. We’d learned a few Italian words, like for “left” and “right,” but our inflight Xanax caused us to reverse them. We got very turned around driving from Bologna. Everyone’s directions were useless, because left was right and also everyone thought we were looking for the bigger town of Chianti. On the phone before leaving New York, we’d gotten instructions to get the key to our cliffside house from a woman with a green laundry bag but later found, as we circled the narrow medieval streets of Chianni (we found the town!) that we were supposed to meet a man under a green awning.
The next day, weirdly, we found a copy of Todd Colby’s anthology Heights of the Marvelous in a used bookstore, and free of interfering language were allowed to slip the bonds of the abysmal present, and let our imperfect consciousness dance with perfect glee. That night, we read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and free of interfering language were allowed to be cocooned by these poems long enough to emerge transformed.
When morning arrived, we set out for Volterra, the place to be tortured in 1530. We got lost again and were so relieved to finally drive through the tiny arch in the town’s ancient stone wall. Relief didn’t last long as it became immediately clear we were not supposed to have brought our car into the town. As a New Yorker, I am never comfortable driving, and this curved, increasingly narrow street had me desperate for an exit. The streets branching off were mostly even more narrow staircases. Like the iron maiden, kidney jack, curious inquisitor, and other Volterra torture outfits, once you’re in, you’re in. None of the signs offered any help until we spotted a green P with an arrow and some words. Parking! It led us to an extremely cramped alleyway that we could get the car into only after folding in the mirrors. It sloped down alarmingly. The few people in the alley stepped into doorways to make room for the dumb tourists. At the bottom of the slope, the alley made a sharp turn and I managed to wedge the car into the corner.
The front doors were crushed against the stone walls so we climbed out the window of the back seats. The neighbors helped us lift the Fiat and realign it with the alleyway. A German professor and a man I assume was a butcher (he was covered in blood (this is all true)) helped us back up out to freedom, explaining in a hybrid of several languages that the P signs meant Pedestrians Only.
That night, we read Brenda Coultas’s Early Films, and free of interfering language were at liberty to explore this fierce universe born from itself time and again. Later, we read Noelle Kocot’s 4, and free of interfering language we caught up with what the rarely reached synapses have been up to all this time, and discovered hidden kinships deep in the structures of the everyday.
Don’t get me wrong. I love distraction and tumult, having grown up in New York. The subway is one of my favorite places to read, especially because you can see what other people are reading. It’s like a dog run for books, where the humans are only incidentally present. At home, I love reading in my hotfoot chair, a comfy seat in my living room just close enough to the radiator that you can prop your feet up and keep them warm all winter.
But nothing compares to the whisper that breaks the silence of reading in a place where you don’t speak the language. Picking up a book only to have a Budapest tram ticket flutter from inside reveals that silence, once entered, enters you. Every adventure in wordlessness makes the condition ever more ready to reawaken. The books I read on these voyages transport me back to those places, but also to an appreciation beyond place, of unsolvable mystery. As they say in Hungarian, “Ha elolvashatja ezt, akkor nem ment elég messzire.”*
* “If you can read this, you haven’t gone far enough.”
Brendan Lorber is a writer and editor. His book of poetry is If this is paradise why are we still driving? (Subpress). And he’s the author of several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb). Since 1995 he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature that prints the rough drafts of contributors’ work in addition to the final versions in order to reveal the creative process. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.
Cagibi Issue 5