Arts & Culture · Poetry

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

If you’ve read the poem as I do, your empathy for the young student is so effectively triggered by the fourth stanza, that details that might otherwise skate by, now sear: the young student’s job working security in a huge bank building that tells us he is in night school and that when he first came to this country he likely went hungry, lacking enough English even to order a sandwich.

The teacher’s second textbook example about the old English Bible is even more overtly western and foreign to her student’s experience than the first one, words like “lovely” painfully incongruous next to what we know now of the student’s life and the question of whether he’s ever seen and could imagine this rich western cultural artifact. Might not that get in the way of his absorbing the lesson is a question that occurs to readers and surely also to this teacher, everyone by now beginning to understand that the teacher lacks not just effective tools for teaching grammar but also the means for helping this human being in the way he most needs. That raises the larger issues of complicity; how do we, who have never known this kind of war and devastation respond to suffering like this? Everything we have to offer, including the language we offer it in, is of us, tainted by a perspective that cannot empathize with the plight of war refugees like this student.

The teacher tries, turning away from the second exemplar to draw from it the rules it is meant to illustrate with respect to the order of adjectives: “Evaluation before size. Age before color. / Nationality before religion. Time before length” (17-8).  As she does so, each rule becomes politically charged, making us think about things like age and skin color discrimination and the conflict between religion and state. Careful readers will notice that the last two rules are not, in fact, deducible from the exemplar: “Time before length. Adding and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal.” That is, in the example involving the English Bible, no adjective refers to “length,” and when we are drawn into another grammatical exercise that makes us insert an “and” between any of its adjectives (Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic) we quickly become aware of comparing apples with oranges, and the rule falls apart. What is it with these rules, we wonder? Are they always applicable, or even right?

The writer here is setting up for the student’s last, perhaps most devastating personal revelation, the fact that “After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years/ of torture.” Again, the most explosive part of that statement is doubly framed, first by being stated as a sort of theoretical question and second by keeping the focus not on what is being said but on how it should be said.(Emily Dickinson might have called this technique “telling it slant.”) Here, diction choices made by the author support neutrality, the verb “survived” used instead of, say “endured” or “suffered,” and the line break deferring the torture to the next line. But neutrality dissolves when the student (or the teacher, or we readers in our minds) struggle to apply the last-stated rule (“Adding and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal”) to the words “nine and long.” How can these two terms possibly be evaluated one against the other when to do so seems clinical and inhumane? And yet because the poem has been set up as an application of the rules of grammar, readers once again find themselves saying it over and over, to see which “sounds” right: “nine, long years of torture” an “long, nine years of torture.”

When analyzing the poem’s tone, I was struck by the paucity of repetitions of sound; there are some, but not many instances of assonance and consonance. Word repetitions occur, both on the page and in our minds as we work out different orders for the phrases the student supplies, but the changing constellations of their order interferes with our brain’s ability to perceive them as refrains. Rhyme is scarce but does occur in the form of slant end rhyme in the lines of stanza three (chalkboard / bread / homemade) and in the poem’s last two lines (year / this). Meter is irregular, but scansion reveals lines falling about as often they rise, with so many feminine endings that many can be read as rising OR falling. What I’ve noticed here does in fact reinforce the poem’s tone; what I hear is neutrality, the objective mask of a teacher reciting a lesson. By the end of a poem, though the mask slips, and we feel the strain of keeping it on. It reminds me of a magazine piece I recently read, where the carefully constructed tone maintains absolute journalistic objectivity while allowing the quotations of both sides to do the work of advocacy. That is, the writer takes no position and gives each side equal time. But what is said by the representative for the group advocating English-Only law on the one hand and by the young Latina woman fighting that legislation on the other, makes it clear where the high ground lies.

Out of exemplars and unable to apply the rules, the teacher muses “Nine and long” (years of torture). Which is more important, which gets more weight? Application of the rule does not serve and seems monstrous besides. What matters is what happened, and that he, the student, “knew no other way to say this.” In a technique Aristotle might praise, the narrator of this poem couches the student’s story in terms of a grammar lesson, thereby intensifying the drama without risking melodrama or sentiment, and the poem is able to achieve the most effective kind of repetition there is, the kind that happens in the minds and mouths of readers who find themselves moved and perhaps forever changed.

Poet’s Notes

I never thought I would write poems about grammar, but I taught at City College of San Francisco from 2001 to 2010—including grammar and composition classes to a highly diverse, international student body—and I started seeing how many questions of history and trauma and identity were present in language acquisition: how much was at stake for many of these students in the ways they could or could not express themselves. I didn’t actually experience the story in this poem: a colleague told me about it, and for months after, I kept thinking about her student “obsessed with the order of adjectives,” and the role of the teacher and student trying to navigate difficult emotions and history, while simultaneously navigating the challenges of language use itself. When I finally tried to write the poem, I began with the current opening line: what I knew most clearly. From there, I did some further reading in grammar books (for examples) and about Saigon (for specifics) and tried to bring these into conversation. I have close friends whose families escaped Vietnam during the war, and I’ve written about, and have always been concerned about, themes related to war and displacement and storytelling, but I was also wary of trying to speak for an experience that I only was privy to second-hand, so I’ve been especially surprised and gratified by how many people have told me this poem resonates with them. —Alexandra Teague


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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at For more information visit

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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.