In anticipation celebration of The Avengers (whoohoo! I hope, anyway), let’s look briefly at A. Van Jordan’s collection Quantum Lyrics, which puts comic book superheroes and heroes of physics together, among other topics, in quite nice poems. (I’m not at all scientifically inclined, as I’ve mentioned before, but I do like the general ideas of physics, the ideas I can almost understand for a moment at a time, anyway, and what’s not to be intrigued by about superheroes?)

Albert Einstein’s personal life, his wives and his civil rights involvement, gets a lot of attention in the collection as well. Sample poem titles: “The Flash Reverses Time,” “The Green Lantern Unlocks the Secrets of Black Body Theory,” “Marian Anderson,” “The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics,” “Sculpting the Head of Miles Davis.”

The Einstein poems use a lot of filmic conventions, “FADE IN” and “CUT TO:” and “INSERT SHOT” and so forth, that section adding up to a sort of documentary film made out of poems. In the prose poem “Einstein Defining Special Relativity,” the scientist’s notebook doubles as a diary: “Even a small amount of mass can be converted into enormous amounts of energy: I’ll whisper her name in her ear, and the blood flows like a mallet running across vibes.”

Que Sera Sera,” which centers on a black driver pulled over by a white cop, has really nice movement through its stanzas, and this opener is fabulous,

In my car, driving through Black Mountain,
North Carolina, I listen to what
sounds like Doris Day shooting
heroin inside Sly Stone’s throat.
One would think that she fights
to get out, but she wants to stay

free in this skin […]

Some of the Quantum Lyrics poems don’t quite do it for me. “Black Light,” for instance, which recalls two young love interests dancing under a black light in a basement all those years ago, ends in the present “beneath these dim stars, casting // a light true enough…finally, / for us, after all these years, to see each other” — just too ham-handed. Even though the light comes from, if I’m reading it correctly, a figure meant to be a pimp, it still doesn’t quite earn it. It’s really hard to earn a line like “a light true enough.”

But, Van Jordan also has poems like “Fractals” which begins, “The sun falls like a hemline breaking / over a man’s shoe” and, after talking about the death of a father through both straight-ahead talk and through the medium of an old film on TV, ends with the speakers’ dreams which

volley from night to day—some thrown
on top of others, others flung
against the activities of the work week—
and the answers of my father, no wiser
to me now that he’s dead, still
shape questions from my questions.

And that, though very emotional and very similar to what I just complained about in “Black Light,” is not heavy-handed at all. Same thing doesn’t always work the same.

But, those few caveats aside, this is a good collection and one I recommend, regardless of your stance on physics or superheroes.

(If you’re interested in an in-depth analysis of poems about superheroes, check out Stephen Burt’s essay “Poems About Superheroes” from Michigan Quarterly’s Fall 2009 issue. Also, if you haven’t yet, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a must-read.)