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Liz Jones on "Quantum Lyrics: Poems"

Cover of "Quantum Lyrics": Man Looking through Green Circle

A. Van Jordan

Quantum Lyrics: Poems

W.W. Norton & Company, 2007
72 pages
$23.95

Reviewed by Liz Jones

During an interdisciplinary forum at Boston University in 2000, Professor of Astronomy Alan Marscher complained about Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer.” In that famous poem, Whitman’s speaker becomes “tired and sick” when listening to a talk about science. Professor Marscher said he disliked the poem because, while as a scientist he found it easy to see the beauty in art and literature, some artists and poets could not see the beauty inherent in his work—the beauty of physics and math.

More than many books, poet A. Van Jordan’s Quantum Lyrics contains a universe between its covers. In this universe, Professor Marscher would be glad to find that the beauty of physics is well-represented. But these are not just poems about science. Jordan puts the histories of racism, sexism, war, comic books, scientific theories, music, and the biography of Albert Einstein between the same covers, showing that all this matter has similar properties and behaviors.

Quantum Lyrics begins with an epigram by neuroscientist Endel Tulving: “Time’s arrow runs straight, but memory endows us with the capacity to bend that arrow into a loop, to revise the past in our minds to regain, even if in fantasy, that which was lost.” Though personal losses and personal fantasies are ever-present in Jordan’s poetry, the book does not merely recount one person’s journey of grief. Rather, Quantum Lyrics explores how and why people attempt to manipulate time. As the prose poem “Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry” rhetorically asks: “What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives?” All the characters in Jordan’s poems, ranging from Erwin Schrödinger to The Flash, do indeed look for that equation.

Jordan effectively demonstrates the forcefulness of time through his enjambments, as in this excerpt from “Quantum Lyrics Montage,” the beginning of the long poem about Albert Einstein that makes up the bulk of the book:

…Imagine

the century moving through its years

with the knowledge of our bodies

and with the knowledge of what our bodies

create and destroy, birthing and burying 

our achievements and our mistakes.

“Quantum Lyrics Montage” reads as a screenplay of a montage, and that form is effective for flashing back and forward, creating a jumbled view of Einstein’s life via jump cuts that move the story swiftly towards completion. This poem is a page-turner, partly because of the fascinating details of Einstein’s biography—his first wife who collaborated on the paper that introduced E = MC2, his relationships with Charlie Chapman and Marian Anderson, his support for an anti-lynching bill in 1946. But it’s not only rich histories that keep us reading. The poem uses poignant and powerful language without becoming overwhelmingly dense or difficult. For example, the section entitled “Anti-lynching bill” ends with the simple, memorable line: “The business of trees should end with leaves.”

One may wonder why Jordan picked Albert Einstein as a subject instead of an African American—as in his earlier M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (2005), which told the story of the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition. Perhaps we do not instantly associate Albert Einstein with African-American history, but “Quantum Lyrics Montage” shows how Einstein’s life (and by implication, the lives of most people of the period) affected and was affected by racial violence and discrimination.

One of my favorite aspects of Jordan’s poetry is its many flawed narrators. In the last poem in Quantum Lyrics, “R & B,” the present-day, non-super-hero speaker (possibly the poet himself) reveals himself to be a curmudgeon:

While the hip world is falling

in love with rappers with marquee-quality prison records,

  …I never needed my female

vocalists to look good in a thong to feel their voices

in my bones; I never needed the male crooners to carry

guns to know they’d kill for love.

The speaker is self-righteous, but not unusually so. When he walks into an Arby’s, he sizes up and judges the young black men working there—based on the their neighborhood or their working-class status or their overweight statures based on their race. The young men argue loudly, and the speaker worries they may become violent. The racism of a black man may help us as readers to admit (and possibly even accept) times when we ourselves have jumped to stereotyped conclusions. In this case, it turns out the young men are arguing over Ron Isley and Al Green—the exact music the speaker loves—and the laugh he shares with the young men is a laugh of relief to be wrong—relief to find that with all our knowledge and memory and pain, the future can still surprise us.

The narrator of the last poem is not the only one who must face his mistakes in judgment. Even Einstein’s incredible mind, even The Atom with his amazing superpowers, must struggle to achieve self-recognition, and their efforts are instantly recognizable to us in their sadness and their beauty.