Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Adjectives of Order,” by Alexandra Teague


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.


“Adjectives of Order,” first published in Slate, appears in Mortal Geography by Alexandra Teague. Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Teague. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York). All rights reserved.

AlexandraTeague_11-9-15   Alexandra Teague Book Cover_11-9-15

Alexandra Teague is the author of two books of poetry:  The Wise and Foolish Builders (Persea, 2015) and Mortal Geography (Persea, 2010), winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and the 2010 California Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of a Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the 2014 Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, Alexandra is Assistant Professor of Poetry at University of Idaho and an editor for Broadsided Press.

The Wise and Foolish Builders can be ordered at and on


Notes on “Adjectives of Order”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This is one of those poems that, as Emily Dickinson famously put it, takes the top off my head every time I read it—elements coalescing towards an ending that somehow surprises at the same time it feels inevitable. What starts out as a grammar lesson winds up as a lesson given by the student to his teacher—and to us—about the horrors of war, and it uses drama to enact a reversal that achieves catharsis through pity and terror in the method that Aristotle prescribes for good poetry in his Poetics.

The scene is set in a contemporary American classroom where a teacher struggles to explain the rules of grammar (specifically, how to order a string of adjectives) to an ESL student, a young man from South Vietnam. He wants to say “The sweltering city streets shook/with rockets and helicopters” but has rendered it otherwise, perhaps the way it next appears in the poem, “The city sweltering streets.” From the start, the putative focus is on the rules of grammar, but we soon understand that the poem is really about what the exemplars of those rules tell us about larger issues of language acquisition and culture, and also about the ways those rules break down. “The city sweltering streets” sounds “wrong” to English language ears but perhaps not to the ears of other language speakers. Even ears trained in English, though, can appreciate the possibilities opened up by this new order—an image of a city sweating its streets, for example, and how reversing the words of a clichéd phrase can refresh it, make it powerful once again.

The teacher, trying to do a good job, begins with the student’s own phrasing but then reverts to textbook example: The mother took warm homemade bread / from the oven.”  It may or may not occur to the teacher that the student does not have experience of or current access to such bread or even, perhaps to a mother but, aided by those italics, these troubling questions do occur to the reader. Who may go on to reflect that even things like grammatical rules are shaped and colored by a political sensibility that assumes peaceful domestic scenes, mothers who are alive and home, and enough money to buy the ingredients for bread. The gap between textbook example and the student’s actual life widens nearly to the point of parody in the next proffered grammatical exemplar: Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic Bible. What is “lovely” in this student’s life? Has he ever seen or can he even imagine such a bible?

Still, he attempts to plug his sentences into the formats his teacher’s examples provide. He wants “to know if his brothers were lost before / older.” The neutrally-framed grammatical question forces the reader to work out the all the possible—and equally heartbreaking—permutations (lost older brothers, older lost brothers). In this way, the writer achieves something remarkable. First, the reader repeats in their own mind words that, if repeated on the page, might have seemed melodramatic. Second, the reader must work with those words, manipulate them as if what the words are actually saying does not matter. How many readers like me will go through this exercise experiencing horror, pity and something like shame? Here is an example of the kind of effective political poetry that I talked about in a previous column, ( 12/28/15, “Privilege” by Barbara Berman, ), one that does not drive readers away with invective and harangue but instead presents the facts and leads readers toward making their discovery about them. READ MORE

Next Page: Empathy and Tone in the Poem

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  • Meryl Natchez January 25, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    A wonderful book on this subject is The Sympathizer. A dark but witty and moving view of America and Vietnam after the war.