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Adjectives of Order

Posted: 2010-06-10

This poem is from Mortal Geography, winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. Drawing on sources as varied as ESL classroom discussions, a colonial travelogue, and the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook, Alexandra Teague explores how language alternately empowers and fails us in this smart, searching, and accessible debut.

Adjectives of Order

by Alexandra Teague

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.

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