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