cover image M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A


A. Van Jordan, . . Norton, $23.95 (134pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05907-6

The first African-American student to reach the final round of the National Spelling Bee, 13-year-old MacNolia Cox of Akron, Ohio, found short-lived celebrity in 1936; when she died 40 years later, the girl who "was almost/ The national spelling champ" had become a cleaning woman, a grandmother, and "the best damn maid in town." Cox's ambition and her later frustration find incisive shape in this remarkably varied meditation on ambition, racism, discouragement and ennui, where successive pages can bring to mind a handbook of poetic forms (a double sestina, Japanese-inspired syllabics, a blues ghazal and prose poems based on definitions of prepositions), Ann Carson's "TV Men" poems, Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah and the documentary film Spellbound . Jordan (Rise ) begins in Cox's later life, giving voice to her husband, John Montiere, at "The Moment Before He Asks MacNolia Out on a Date," then to MacNolia herself when in 1970 her son dies just after his return from Vietnam. As counterpoints, Jordan intersperses poems about African-Americans who won more lasting public acclaim, among them Richard Pryor, Josephine Baker and the great labor organizer and orator A. Philip Randolph. Jordan's most quotable poems, however, return to the voice of the 13-year-old speller, who "learned the word chiaroscuro/ By rolling it on my tongue// Like cotton candy the color/ Of day and night." (June)