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.