by A. Van Jordan
W.W. Norton, 2007
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David Wagoner is not the only poet looking down from his summit of seniority to lament that
the chief fault bedeviling younger poets is their willingness to accept work not fully imagined. Surely it befits
our ADHD epoch that this curse has sometimes come to be accorded the status of a virtue. But the contrasting
figures cut by some 40-ish poets, educated in the same workshops Wagoner implicitly faults and whose reputations
have arisen post-millenium, show an inclination to keep what we might call the verities of poetry under review.
Though irony is still a staple, the heady whiff of nihilism is not there. It's just such a regard that
distinguishes a poet like A. Van Jordan. In fact, in his new book,
there is sometimes a sense that the overtopping of imaginative fill is the norm that he practices and, in
practicing, implicitly recommends. Early on in this book, whose title alone shows its eagerness to blind
us with science, comes a lecture by Richard Feynman that shows just such a fullness of imagination:
Love begins in the streets with vibration and ends behind closed doors in jealousy. Creation and destruction.
What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives?
What do we believe in if not that which tells us we're alive? Sex, laugher, sweat, and equations elegant enough
to figure on our fingers. Math is spirit and spirit is faith in numbers: both take us to the edge but no
further than we can imagine.
("Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry")
The scientific lens, one that poets of my generation have sometimes applied as cognate to
their own work, quickly brings to focus what is, at bottom, of interest to Van Jordan in this volume: race,
history, popular culture, science as a generator of language and grammar. He is also keenly drawn to melodrama
figured in terms of dualities: necessity versus chance, access to knowledge versus secrets, and identity versus
freedom from identity's burdens. You can collapse some of these by argument and make others vanish by changing
the subject: the mechanism, the working out, of many of the poems in this volume shows how. Others you cannot.
Knowing the difference is all.
Although Einstein's inner life provides the massive centerpiece for this collection, it is
bookended by poems delivered in the voice of Feynman bearing on the question of symmetry, which is to say, the
question that addresses what aspects of a system remain unchanged as transformations get in gear. Like other
borrowings from physics in this bookrelativity, quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, string
theorythe emphasis is on the application to existential and psychological facts about people. These
borrowings carry with them the same cautions as with, say, Social Darwinismthat is, it may be science
over there, but it's metaphor in here. That said, Van Jordan's appropriation of concepts that physicists
would prefer remain locked inside their disciplines and terminologies, reminds me of the easy tactical use
of Ptolemaic schemes in poems of the 17th century. And while no less an Einstein-and-Feynman-level
eggheadLudwig Wittgensteinpointedly warned against large-scale vocabulary switching as
delusional, its use in poetry is clear, as the very terms come tout compris with their handy metaphorical
menus already charted out.
What makes the question of symmetry first and foremost is the question of whether culture
itself can continue in some fashion "unchanged" by hungry generations without or faulty memory
within. An early poem, "Que Sera Sera" tells the story of the young poet, already understandably
transitioned from Doris Day to Sly Stone, who is pulled over in small-town North Carolina and is about to
receive a driving-while-black citation when the mirror-shaded officer is nonplussed to find that the driver
is a professor and poet at the local college. Adjusting his dignity, he lets his prey go. This poem's
counter-lyric, "R & B," the final poem in the collection, takes place years later when the
speaker finds himself contemplating the fates of two young Arby's employees whom he at first mistakes for
young men locked in the monotony of gangsta rap, who surprisingly call upon him to adjudicate a question
on the strange similarity between the falsettos of Al Green and Ron Isley. Feeling generational already,
as his father has just died, the speaker finds consolation in the notion that such questions still matter,
although he has himselfin the eyes of the young employees (and in the eyes of the reader)moved
from the on-deck circle to the plate:
Here I insert a caesura, while I ponder this cogent point:
You know, I say, you've got a point.
I never thought about it before, but it's true.
If you listen to Ron Isley, and didn't know the song,
one might mistake him for Al Green. At this moment,
I laugh with these brothers louder than I've laughed
since my father's death.
Albert Einstein is so much the icon-in-chief in this book, as he is in pop culture and
Andy Warhol, that he can be made to bear a raft of meanings, even as the facts of his lifehis affairs,
marriages, and emotional detoursare not in dispute. He can also be made into a kind of cartoon figure,
just as, later in the collection, a second-string DC Comics hero is promoted to the status of a person. This
willingness to let historical figures and cartoon characters exchange hats matches the further emanations of
relativity, in which the subjective lays a wreath at the tomb of objectivityall of which is standard
operating procedure for lyric poetry anyway:
This is relativity.
Journalists ask for a definition,
but the answers are all around:
a woman loves you for a lifetime
and it feels like a day; she tells you
she's leaving, breaking it off,
and that day feels like a lifetime . . .
("Einstein Ruminates on Relativity")
Van Jordan further warms the Einsteinian pop-cultural credentials by writing in the form
of an imagined screenplay. It brought John Collier to my mind, whose own Paradise Lost: A Screenplay for the
Mind wed Milton to Star Wars. Van Jordan's Einstein sometimes comes across as a League of Justice
worthyone of those whose powers embody, even as they conceal, yearnings and anxieties. Van Jordan's
Einstein goes the distance in uncovering the relativity of private life, and one senses that it is the
private life and the shifting waveform of its perspective that is a manifold topic for the poet too:
It's much harder
to comprehend what men and women
share than the universe's infinity
which is more difficult to grasp
("My dear, naughty little sweetheart")
One of the key issues of this private, domestic relativity is the place of intimacy and
indeed, in a wider sense, of irrationality's claim on a man supposedly inspired by the grail of rationality.
But this is the same man whose science leads him back to the interplay of desire and chance, the very spot
from which, in a sense, he took flight. Van Jordan also expresses this as the difference between chance and
necessity. As Schrödinger observes:
with no lovers on the horizon; we go along like Einstein
trying to find our purpose and then we look up and
how we got here. We don't know
if we willed it, or if we fell in with the body next to us.
What Schrödinger realizes, in his capacity as a specimen of homo sapiens, is
that chance is itself what is necessary. Well might he put the matter thus because it's the quantum
naturethat is to say, the fundamentally unknowable nature of lovethat sets his colleague Einstein
on and that invites reciprocation from Einstein's first wife, Mileva. Here, Einstein is talking,
Everything we do in life comes down to experiments
with love and curiosities. Lives should be experienced
children masquerading as adults. Although the public
the work of scientists and poets, this they don't
("Collaboration: Albert and Mileva")
Elsewhere the relative nature of love is as reversible as the lovely nature of relatives
(the Shrödinger poem follows upon the death of Einstein's second wife, his cousin Elsa ):
That love is born not out of deceit but from the quest for
makes me shake my head. No man has held wife and
not even Einstein, and not been changed, indelible with
These are indeed the vexations of a man, albeit a supernerd, but therefore all the more
vulnerable to hints of unpredictability, even as he (Einstein) wants to ground all in a unified field theory,
even up to the moment of his death.
Van Jordan dramatizes Einstein'si.e., ironically Everyman's push-pull relationship
to certainty in terms of knowledge of the outside world, of self, love, and fidelity. He also contextualizes
Einstein's subjectivity with reports of other scientists who also, as it were, collaborated in the undoing of
the Newtonian template, but also from a more consciously dramatizing and racially aware social and artistic
world. Here the names themselves take on importance: Charlie Chaplin, W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Marian
Anderson, figures for whom margins and centers were of abiding interest. Van Jordan also makes the point
that Einstein's work involved some heavy collaboration with first wife Mileva, subsequently omitted in the
record ("Your little urchin experimented/ with the math, unveiling mysteries with you in the shadows.").
Whitman knew how to flourish with contradiction, and Hopkins knew that dappled things were another way of
talking about Schrödinger's cat, but it took science another fifty years to sign on to the quantum nature
of reality (a nature that left Einstein himself most unhappy).
Van Jordan's accomplishment is to show us ways into this new world, brave or otherwise,
unauthorized by official history, but sanctioned, like biography itself, by plausibility. Take this encounter
Two men with charisma.
A world begins with an embryo
of ideas, motion, velocity,
and ends with comic tragedy,
and thought experiments and proofs,
with flirtation, marriage and divorce.
Whatever we need to know
can be learned by watching a tramp
("Society page review of City Lights")
Just as Chaplin's triumph was to create a character whose dignity grows in inverse proportion
to his worldly successes, so Einstein is the intellectual magician whose famous theory becomes the more baffling
as it approaches real life. The difference between them is also expressed in terms of their perceived differences:
The world sees Chaplin and sees
the human condition; they see
Einstein and ask, Dr.,
where is your mind leading us?
("Society page review of City Lights")
The key here, the structuring idea that keeps the Montage from drifting off involves, of
course, all the equivocations and variations that can be wrung from the Einstein keywords. Each poem in the
Montage is a cut-to or flashback, and the implicit invitation to think of the sequence as a movie is, I think,
an attractive one. Smuggling tricks of cinema into poems is hardly a new idea anyway (see Yannis Ritsos), and
as a matter of fact, it did make me briefly entertain the notion that I was reading a screenplay for a movie
tracking the parallel tasks of science and marital fidelity.
This is a book of extensions and proliferations followed by inversions and unwindings. The
initial promise of objective clarity (in science and poetry) gives way to the longueurs of subjective
misalliance as the years pass (private life). The book's architecture also replicates this exchange of energies
as the cartoon section inverts the Einstein section. Here, a microscopic cartoon hero takes center stage, all
earnestness and struggle, not the halo-haired, just, mystery-encumbered, larger-than-life icon. Of the
Lilliputian Atom, toonpedia.com mentions his "'atom-size' schticks, such as launching himself through a
window by grabbing hold of a shade cord." This hero, himself a scientist, plays the foil to humanize Herr
Professor Einstein who, at length, certainly needed no additional humanization, especially from a cartoon.
Indeed, the whole section exists to show just how human genius is. Certainly the Montage, for all its charms,
makes this plain. Yet, the Atom's adventures inversely parallel the Nobel scientist's, and his ground-up
trajectory mirrors Einstein's entropic coming-to-terms with the contradictions, inconsistencies, and equivocations
down on 112 Mercer Street in Princeton.
The value of a book like this is that it offers new ways to get at notions of fame and with
it, the use of equivocating toolswordsin a universe supposedly ruled by the no-nonsense hand of
mathematics within the no-nonsense framework of physics. The irony of fame is that it lies somewhere between
gossip and public knowledge: it falls upon our ears with downy contingency, but over time it may come more
and more to resemble something we ought to knowor something we think we do know.
There being two sides, etc., equivocation permeates the sense of
and therein lies its irony. When Einstein writes W. E. B. DuBois, he might as well be subbing for
Eliot: "There exists no erasure for race," the physicist intones. Van Jordan's Einsteinand
his amatory accomplicesare as in love with the sounds of words as they are with each other and with
numbers and symbols. One unsettling thought is that the equivocal nature of our communications tools mirrors
the relativity that rules the physical realm. If that's so, then one could argue that reality itself is
somehow grounded in aesthetics, a thought that swings all by itself between alarming and charming. There's
no point in arguing that reality is "constructed" in language: the former already comes ready to
be understood any of a number of waysall subjective. This is a rich and accessible collection, enjoyable,
and knowledgeable: it must be the first poetry collection in memory to feature not only endnotes, but a
bibliography. It is tightly structured, so the whole feels informed by symmetries that pass beyond the
obvious, yet the voice is capable of operating in numerous registers, sometimes simultaneously, just as
that voice's resonance invites the partnership of memory and judgment, all too often forced apart, from the