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Poet's Choice

BY ROBERT PINSKY
Sunday, December 2, 2007

A.Van Jordan writes books of poetry that approach a subject the way a filmmaker or nonfiction writer might. His new book has a useful "Selected Bibliography," and many of the poems are headed by screenwriting categories such as "Flashback" and "Cut To."

The material includes American racial realities in the segregationist years following World War II, and the scene is (more or less) Princeton University, with Albert Einstein as one of the characters and physics part of the vocabulary. Princeton did not admit its first Negro students until the late 1940s! Einstein, in these poems as in life, addresses that instance of racism and other American social issues.

FLASHBACK:

INTERIOR: Princeton Classroom, 1945 -- DAY

Einstein has read JOHN HERSEY's Hiroshima in the New Yorker . He buys 1,000 copies to send to his friends around the world. Now, he goes into the classroom to teach, facing the chalkboard to work an equation.

Einstein Doing the Math

I turn to the black expanse of the chalk

board and the numbers spill

from my skull first and from fingertips

in time. Time in mathematics

brings complications, sequentially.

Numbers demand order and orders

demand numbers to behave. Otherwise,

one places one digit out of place

and an entire world loses

equilibrium. Someone determines that

one number is the temperature to freeze,

someone else realizes another number brings water

to a boil, but someone got the math wrong

and -- now, if you'll allow me to dream --

the bombs pull us closer together

instead of separating the masses.

Working an equation is as tedious as a comedian

working a room, timing when to drop

the solution to our worries so profoundly we rear back

and laugh at them. Or, for those without

a sense of humor, math can be as simple as buttoning

a blouse, really: after you misfeed the first button,

though, every move of the hand, no matter how sincere,

becomes a lie.

The poem's undertaking is audacious -- speaking as Einstein. The quiet, convincing directness in handling that last figure of speech about miscalculating and misbuttoning is successful. By evoking American history from unexpected, unsettling angles, Jordan demonstrates poetry's power to be at once intimate and wide-ranging.

(A. Van Jordan's poem "Flashback" is from his book "Quantum Lyrics: Poems." Norton. Copyright 2007 by A. Van Jordan.)

Robert Pinsky's new book of poetry is "Gulf Music."

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