A Review of: Quantum Lyrics by A. Van Jordan

CENTRAL QUESTION: How many good poems can a person write about quantum physics?

A Review of: Quantum Lyrics by A. Van Jordan

Thomas March
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Art or quantum physics: which is better suited to aid our understanding of the universe and of our place in it? To point out, as A.Van Jordan often does in Quantum Lyrics, that neither will suffice without the other is not to suggest that these systems of thought are somehow equivalently fictional or constructed—that old myth so often mistakenly attributed to postmodern thought. For Jordan, to be a visionary—whether poet, philosopher, musician, or scientist—is to wrestle with the same inconveniences of wondering and speak the same language of awe.

Jordan’s visionary heroes are the dreamers who wake up, wonder, and take notes. Speaking as Richard Feynman, for instance, in “Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry,” Jordan writes: “What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives?… Sex, laughter, sweat, and equations elegant enough to figure on our fingers.” Simple, yes. But not simplistic.

“Quantum Lyrics Montage,” the core of this collection, consists of twenty-three poems that follow a span of Albert Einstein’s life, beginning in 1905 and ending in 1955 with his dying thoughts. The poems trace the development of Einstein’s humanism and imagine how other brilliant minds touched his.The thinkers seek each other out, each willing to be affected by another, risking silence for the chance to achieve amplification—among Jordan’s frequent physical metaphors for an intensifying influence, ecstasy, or collaborative inspiration. As if in response to the earlier Feynman poem, Jordan imagines Einstein’s life ending with the thought “realizing it’s the struggle / to make the world understand you / that comes down to an equation that has no answer.”

The most perfect examples of poetic amplification in this collection come in two poems about the superhero the Atom. The physics analogies that support the superhero allegories in turn allow Jordan to reflect more broadly on the challenge of uncertainty. In “The Superposition of the Atom,” after alluding to the most famous analogy about uncertainty, Schrödinger’s cat, the Atom thinks about what it means to have an alter ego. Like the cat in its always questionable existence, the Atom exists in a constant state of readiness to be, able only to wish for some measure of self-determination: “imagine being the cat, your life / determined by who looks inside the box. // Wouldn’t you want to decide for yourself / whether you could be your own hero // or nemesis? Don’t we all pray for the gaze / of some god who looks like us, // having mercy on what is seen?”

Superheroes can embody not only our wishes for power but also our anxiety about the limits of our control. The Atom begins “The Uncertainty of the Atom” with pride in his powers, but he’s soon worrying about how he can make room for love, when he doesn’t know where he will be from one moment to the next. He is no more certain of himself than any scientist could be, in any instant, of the speed and position of an electron.

These poems suggest that, at the end of our seeking for self knowledge or answers to the mysteries of the universe, there will always be more uncertainty. They demand readers who are suspicious of absolutes, who seek knowledge not for its comforts but for its endless questions.

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