This is an amazing collection. The tone is set with the cover, a cover that features a young African-American face looking (staring?) right at the reader. The title of the collection is also defined: “A Negro who spells and reads as well as [if not better than] any white.”
In this way, Jordan sets his almost documentarian tone for his based on a true story coherent collection of poems about a young African-American Ohio girl, Macnolia Cox, who made it to the national spelling bee competition only, it is strongly suggested, to be prevented from winning by Southern judges who assigned her a word not on the list. That word? Nemesis. You can’t make this stuff up.
And it is words (Life only seems clear / Through the words I trade / With others or Sometimes you learn words / By living them and sometimes / Words learn you // By defining who you are) and spelling and definitions that make up the meat of this superb collection. I don’t have a great deal of experience with poetry, but I think Jordan has invented a kind of poem – the definition poem. His, for lack of a better term, Definition poems are stunning. And what’s even more impressive is that he’s written them about seemingly ordinary words, like ‘to’ and ‘from.’
But others are great here as well. “In Service” caused me to write, “Wow.” “Elegy to My Son” brought tears to my eyes. Here is the poem, “from” –