Poetry / The English Teacher / The Social Network

War & Speech

Poetry gets to the heart of a matter.

Poetry gets to the heart.

Poetry offers us the best words, in the best order — suggests we take a look at what we might not want to see.

Poetry connects us to times past, times unknown, times forgotten.

Poetry shifts our perspectives. Rearranges the syntax. Upends the table. Turns the tide.

These are the tricks of poetry.

Getting to the heart, so that we might see the heart of the matter.


Today, I found a poem that does all these things. The poet? Alexandra Teague. The poem? ‘Adjectives of Order” collected in Mortal Geography . The poem’s title piqued my inner teacher’s curiosity. The poem’s subject matter re-ordered my sensibilities. Got to my heart. Here, then, is the matter:

Adjectives of Order


That summer, she had a student who was obsessed

with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South

Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when


Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order

could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook

with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering


streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard,

she wrote: The mother took warm homemade bread

from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade


is essential to bread . He copied this down, but

he wanted to know if his brothers were lost  before

older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern


downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.

When he first arrived, he did not know enough English

to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part


of Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic

leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color.

Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding


and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal.

After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years

of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.


Sometimes, poetry says it best.


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