Wednesday, August 8, 2007
A. Van Jordan
The nice thing about having a blog is that it provides a forum where I can rave shamelessly about things I like; for instance, A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. It’s a collection of poems inspired by the life of MacNolia Cox, an Ohio girl who, in 1936, became the first African American to reach the final round of the National Spelling Bee. The judges cheated her out of winning, and that injustice set the trajectory for her life. She was a bright, ambitious child who wound up cleaning rich white people’s houses, and suffering through a long, unhappy marriage.
Sounds grim, I know. It is grim. There aren’t a lot of pretty stories to tell about what it was like to be black in America in the 30s and 40s. The miracle of these poems is that they capture the ugliness of those times very powerfully, and yet they’re ultimately joyful. They celebrate the genius of a child, the magic of language, and the beauty of African American culture. There are lines so poignant they take my breath away, and word-drunk passages that make me giddy.
Jordan uses a wealth of forms and voices, and hauls in everybody from Josephine Baker to Richard Pryor to help tell MacNolia’s story. The disparate rhythms somehow mesh together to create a lusty aria on a child’s pride in her gift, and the way some glimmer of that pride endures through a hard life. Jordan never gets very far away from Macnolia’s communion with words, which he captures especially well in "Practice."
You know how a word comes
To you like a face that’s familiar
But without a name to which you can
Attach—not a complete stranger,
But not a friend either?
You stare into the features of this word,
Hoping the letters will find you—
You know they will find you;
You repeat the word to yourself
As if tasting it will help.
Jordan, of course, shares MacNolia's devotion to the power of words—even the ones nobody loves. He includes a series of prose poem riffs about prepositions. Here’s a snippet of his take on “to”:
...8. Used before a verb to indicate the infinitive: There are women who will never get to know their fathers and won’t get over it. There are women who have had to know their fathers and won’t get over it. There are women who know what it is to live with a man, but who will never know what it is to marry a man; and there are women who know what it is to marry a man, but who will never know what it is to live.
The poems inspired by MacNolia's adult years are sensual, but sometimes as harsh as her life. Here's one in its entirety, reprinted with permission of the author:
Deep in my pores
Lies the secret
Evidence of faith,
A black-licorice world
Beneath these everyday clothes,
Where men walk in silence
With dilated mouths.
Have you ever fallen
Into the vowels on a dark
Woman's lips as she blew
A simple phrase like "Good Morning"
To a man she's just met?
Nothing, maybe, to the naked ear,
But close your eyes and listen
To the dark sounds rounded
Off in the shadows of her mouth--
There lies the secret to end
All wars. In her throat,
Lives a lump of coal, which does not aspire
To emerge as a diamond. I know how
Her darkness, how her dark wake,
Sways in inverse light behind a man's
Eyelids as he reaches his hand
Toward the hint of her body.
copyright (c) 2004 by A. Van Jordan.
Now, if that doesn't make you feel something, you need to check for a pulse. Jordan has a new collection out, Quantum Lyrics, which I'm very eager to read. There are a couple of poems from it, as well as more of M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, on his page at Norton's site