August 18, 2007

Review: Quantum Lyrics

Quantum Lyrics

Norton, $23.95 hardcover

If A plus B = B plus A,
A and B bear the ability to add up:

why isn’t race always commutative?

That is just one of the key questions in A. Van Jordan’s third book of poetry, Quantum Lyrics, a book of explorations about memory, race, history, and identity, each articulated through the language of mathematics and science. The speech of politics and society, it seems, is racially biased and unable to provide logical explanations or even unbendable truth.

That is why superhero comic books like The Green Lantern, The Atom and The Flash contain more accessible lenses to hold up against the mysterious world. The speaker in the poems “The First Law of Motion” and “Remembrance” for example, gestures toward an earlier poem in which the reader learns about The Flash’s ability to travel at the speed of light and reverse time. For the speaker, there is no going back to rectify past mistakes, no outrunning danger, only the burdens of fear, guilt and hindsight:
I remember, as a boy, walking home
from school, I saw Milton McKnight,

a kid we said was a little slow;
he was tied to a tree.
Three guys, for fun, were beating him

like a pedal on a bass drum,
but no music was coming out.
I want you to know, I remember

not Milton’s blood but mine,
how I felt my blood coursing
through my body. This is how I learned

fear, how I had to tell my blood
to keep moving, relax. I did nothing.
Similarly, The Atom offers essential life lessons about knowing when to claim visibility, when to become invisible, and how both can be subversive or evasive acts:
Sometimes shrinking to the size

of a coin is a super power;

sometimes it’s just a way

to find value in one’s life.
But the heart of this collection is the twenty-three part “Quantum Lyrics Montage,” a compelling portrait of Albert Einstein’s personal and political life.

From the troubled first marriage to Mileva Marić, to the brow-arching second one to his first cousin Elsa, and a few extramarital discrepancies in between, indeed prove the assertion that “the action of love and the reaction/ of disappointment are equal forces.” And also that:
Infinite space
is so hard for people to hold

in their skulls, but they believe
in infinite happiness.
Einstein’s relationship to Mileva, his “elegant equation,” ends with heartbreak, an emotion he sums up with a postulate: “the speed of light emitted from the truth is the same as that of a lie coming from the lamp of a face aglow with trust.”

But Jordan’s investment is clearer with Einstein’s political leanings: his warnings about the development of the atomic bomb, and his solidarity with the black population of the his new home, the United States, he himself a brilliant thinker subject to the anti-Semitic furor sweeping Europe, where even men of learning were bringing into question “Jewish science.”

Imagining the contents of a 1931 letter Einstein wrote to W.E.B. DuBois on the issue of race:
Not talking about it will not ease
the pain of questioning who is white,

Negro or Jewish, just to assess hierarchy

over humanity.
And in a 1946 letter to President Truman in support of an anti-lynching bill: “Trees need only to drop leaves to prove gravity./ The gravity of men hanged from trees is grave.”

By the conclusion of the elaborate rumination in Quantum Lyrics, the speaker assesses: “Nothing changes easily.” Yet the potential for change has been established with the revelation and study of the mechanisms that keep systems of oppression in place.

A. Van Jordan has written a significant and intelligent book of poems.

Rigoberto González

August 11, 2007

Review: Perfect Villagers

Perfect Villagers

Octopus Books, $6

The recognition of the inverted world still requires a knowledge of the order of the world which it inverts and, in a sense, incorporates.
-- Linda Hutcheon

The particular world that a poem creates, populates, and governs is, in one sense, an inverted world. Images, lines, and meanings are all arranged according to the ordered world of the poem. This “poetic world” is not arranged in some dictionary-definition, upside-down order of inversion, though. It is a world that has been turned inside-out, its entrails exposed. But no matter how inverted a “poetic world” might be, it must remain, to use Hutcheon's phrase, aware "of the world which it inverts."

Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s chapbook, Perfect Villagers, is a wonderful example of this inversion. Topics are sometimes large—Korea, Kim Jong Il, language, “the insubstantial ‘universe’”—but the poems in which they situate themselves are striking microcosms of playful precision. For example, the book’s opening poem, “Dear Margaret Cho” (the first of two poems with this title), begins:

korea might be gay but I do not think you are.
korea is a peninsula. you and I are people, meaning that we have hair we

comb and things to look at. our lips pout and take on the fullness of an ad-

opted meaning.

the fact of the matter is that relentlessness is a handshake, a limp fish or glass

of lukewarm tea. the fact of the matter is that standing on a stage everything

is comic, meaning small and memorable, of the insubstantial “universe,” a

minor disaster or floating chord.

the darkness is outside when I see you, not in.
What’s funny about this poem (and some of the other poems in Lee’s collection) is that it’s not all that funny. Based on title alone, one might expect a poem called “Dear Margaret Cho” to be humorous, but this is not the case. Expectation gets turned on its head. There is an overwhelming seriousness that permeates Lee’s poems, and it becomes clear that no matter how cheeky the poems might initially seem, they are primarily concerned with memory, place (both geographical and orientational), and the process of language.

The poems are imbricated with these weighty notions in image after image and idea after idea, but it doesn’t mean Lee misses out on having a bit of fun. Language is the process of progression throughout the collection, and Lee’s oft-fragmented lines are playful with their stunted or piecemeal syntax:
a wellspring of thought. moves on without gaps or expressions of ecstasy.
continuous, fibrous, multiple—violet shades drawn down over a liquid vibe.

(“Enter the Dragon”)


this and that. between you and me; between both sides.

make a fire ((in the stove))

smoke. lifelong. one’s lifework.

(“Kim Jong Il: A Reader)
Other lines are straightforward and clear, their images spelled out in simple, subject/predicate declarations, but are no less as playful:
you are where I have left you
every moment that I leave you

(“Toshiro Mifune”)


we aren’t differentiable with bangs and hooded lids.

I know the likeness doesn’t stop right there.

what’s so great about being horny? the joke is insatiable.

it rips and roars between and through.

(“Dear Margaret Cho” #2)
Perhaps the most striking poem in Perfect Villagers is its final one, “Toshiro Mifune.” It is a fitting close that revisits and muses on the concerns that traverse the entire collection. In it, Lee sprinkles some of her most heartbreakingly beautiful lines:
I slept with a woman and woke up as a curse
I slept with a man and woke up silent

I ate alone and clasped hands at the kindness of strangers


mimicking a glint on a drawn edge, a standoff on the beach

these words draw oars from their spaces

treble their volume with a nay-sayer’s dust

she waxes most eloquent

when of her eloquence she speaks


categorically he was a man just as any other man

was born, breathed, one day stood then spoke
In Perfect Villagers, Lee crafts a haunting world of language and memory. There is a freshness and clever sincerity in her work that is, to borrow her words, both “bliss and aftermath,” so dolefully fun.

by Nate Slawson

This is the seventh in a series of eight reviews on the chapbooks from Octopus Books.