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a. van jordan, m-a-c-n-o-l-i-a

15 July 2004

A. Van Jordan's M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is a unified collection of short poems with a strong overall narrative line. Formally, it's unremarkable. The poems are mostly free verse except for a couple of blues-influenced lyrics and an unrhymed double sestina. There isn't a scannable line in the book, which indicates, obviously, a studied avoidance of meter. In other words, it's formally a very typical collection of the 2000s.

M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A gets its hook from its real-life protagonist and her story. MacNolia Cox was a schoolgirl from Akron, Ohio who, in 1936, won her district spelling bee and placed in the top five in the national competition in Washington DC. Though she placed fifth in the nation, questions still surround her exit on the word "Nemesis": a word not on the approved list – probably injected on purpose by malevolent judges.

MacNolia, you see, was black, and her presence at that level of a national spelling bee unprecedented. After her near-victory in Washington, she became disenchanted with academic work, left school, married, and worked as a maid for an Akron doctor till her death in 1976. (A son predeceased her.) The contrast between MacNolia's potential and her seemingly empty life is irresistible as a subject for poetry. In Jordan's imagination of her, MacNolia is defeated partly by racism, partly by sexism, and partly by the capacity of the banal to swallow up magical promise of all kinds.

Much of the collection is an imaginative exploration of the relationship between MacNolia and her husband John Montiere. The story of a relationship, told in alternating lyrics, strongly recalls Rita Dove's collection Thomas and Beulah – and would even if the characters were not African-Americans in Akron, Ohio. Oddly enough, although Jordan styles several of the poems in M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A as being "after" the work of other contemporary poets (including Marilyn Nelson and Edward Hirsch), Rita Dove is acknowledged nowhere in the book. Perhaps her influence is so clear and large that citing it seems otiose.

The originality of M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is its focus on language. All poets are interested in language, but a poet whose heroine is a speller must focus on the tiniest formal elements of language: on orthography, on precise dictionary definitions. Some of the most effective poems in the book are titled "from," "with," and "to" – mere gimmes in the champion speller's order of things, but defined as precisely as a champion must define the more recondite reaches of her vocabulary. There are eleven shades of meaning for "with" (a word that in Old English meant its opposite and still carries the possibility of meaning "with" or "against"). In his poem "with" (46-47), Jordan explores the companionate and adversarial nature of marriage in a thought-provoking list of all eleven possibilities.

Though you know the outcome, the spelling bee itself has inherent qualities of suspense, and here the bee is deferred till after the main story of MacNolia's life and marriage. It's a key narrative choice, and shows the precision of Jordan's craft in this volume.

Spelling bees have seized the American imagination in recent years. They play on cable TV; they've inspired a hit documentary (Spellbound) and a best-selling novel (Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg). With M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, A. Van Jordan becomes the first epic poet of the spelling bee, and of its personal and social consequences.

A. Van Jordan. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. New York: Norton, 2004.