A. Van Jordan combines the tragic poignancy of the blues with the cinematic sweep of a documentary in his deeply humane and highly imaginative second book, M.A.C.N.O.L.I.A, which focuses on the life of MacNolia Cox, a spunky 13-year-old girl who won the Akron District Spelling Bee in 1936. Cox was the first African American to advance to the final round of the national competition, but it is generally thought -- and Jordan clearly believes -- that the Southern judges kept her from winning by deviously tripping her up on the word "nemesis," which was not on the official list. That stolen opportunity marked her for life, and she was never afterwards the same. Hence this conclusive poem, which is spoken by a woman veiled in white:

N-e-m-e-s-i-s Blues

I'd rather have no name, no name for my man to call

Say, I'd rather lose my name, no name to call

Than to use my name to make a poor girl crawl

They gon' and used my name, cruel as they can be

They up and broke my good name, cruel as they can be

Done set fire to my name and blown the smoke back at me

Smells like turpentine is in the drinks tonight

Yeah, put some turpentine in the drinks tonight

Might as well get crazy cause we gonna have to fight

My name must taste like a misspelled word

Poor girl, my name must taste like a misspelled word

But when it's all over, I'll show 'em how trouble gets stirred

Than to use my name to make a poor girl crawl

Man, I'd rather have no name, no name for my man to call

Hell, I'd rather lose my name, have no name at all

Jordan comes from Akron, and he stumbled upon Cox's haunting story, as he says, "while researching the lifestyles of African Americans in Ohio during the '20s and '30s." It is for him an emblematic tale -- the word "macnolia," he tellingly suggests, means "a Negro who spells and reads as well as [if not better than] any white" -- and it gives him a convincing way to concentrate on an individual life while also exploring social attitudes and racial prejudices of Depression-era America.

Jordan's primary strategy is to interweave voices to create a dramatic overall portrait of MacNolia's life. MacNolia speaks often, savoring words ("So many words hover around my head"), and we hear often from her less verbal husband, John Montiere, who exclaims on their wedding night: "let's strip off our words/ to speak without our tongues. let's/ try to tongue without/ saying a word. let's turn speech/ back into struggle tonight."

Jordan is a formally inventive poet who plays with the notion of the spelling bee, creates dictionary definitions to refer to MacNolia's experiences (I especially like the one for "afterglow") and meditates on the nature of words. "Sometimes you learn words/ By living them and sometimes/ Words learn you// By defining who you are," MacNolia declares in the poem "Infidelity."

This diverse sequence uses framing devices from the movies ("INTERIOR -- NIGHT -- Panning shot of MACNOLIA'S bedroom on her deathbed") and takes some of its highest notes from music. One feels more than a little grief-stricken and outraged for the gifted young girl who never recovered from her lost or stolen chance, the A student who dropped out of school, married and ended up working as a domestic in the home of a local physician. "They say she/ Spelled like a demon as a child," Jordan has Dr. Wittenberg declare in 1948. "They say she was almost/ The national spelling champ, would've/ Been the second one we had/ From Akron in as little as three years. . . . / I don't know, really, but I'm telling you -- / She's the best damn maid in town."

(All quotations are from A. Van Jordan, "M.A.C.N.O.L.I.A." Norton. Copyright © 2004 by A. Van Jordan.)