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the grammar of suffering war

alesnick's picture

To me, Alexandra Teague's "Adjectives of Order" (below) speaks powerfully to the problem with formal education when forms are fundamentally unresponsive to human experiences, especially those we undergo rather than originate.  The poem shows a "student's" schooling in English as an education in the ruthless impersonality of the way grammar is conceived.  It also shows how the situation of formal education erects bizarre barriers between "student" and "teacher"  -- in quotes because the student is, among other things, also a veteran and former prisoner of war, a speaker of a language or languages other than English, and a person working to make sense of his experience through language; the teacher we don't learn much about, but she is clearly also a learner in this case. I would welcome others' thoughts about the poem, including about its resonances with questions about the purpose and impact (actual and aspirational) of formal education, schooled learning. 

Adjectives of Order
by Alexandra Teague (Mortal Geographies, Persea Books, 2010)

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.


Anne Dalke's picture

Adjectives of Order

In my first reading, I found this poem strong and, in line with what Alice says, a story about the inadequacy of formal systems--like schools, or like the grammar lessons taught in schools--to encompass the horrors of the experience of war. On my second reading, I found it a touching account of the ways in which we all use language in desperate attempts to sequence what is unorderable: writing sentences, writing poems, is how we shape a world that threatens to overwhelm us.

But then I found myself deep in two books about world literature, both of them reconceiving the field as about translation and reception. In What is World Literature? David Damrosch looks @ works that come to live within literary systems beyond their original culture. He considers circulation and translation, how literary works might manifest differently abroad than @ home. In his hands, world literature becomes the sort of writing that gains in translation--and it also becomes a mode of reading: a form of engaging with worlds beyond our own place and time.

In The Translation Zone, Emily Apter casts translation "as an act of love, and as an act of disruption...a means of rendering self-knowledge foreign to itself; a way of denaturalizing citizens, taken them out of the comfort zone of national space, daily ritual, and pre-given domestic arrangements. It is a truism that the experience of becoming proficient in another tongue delivers a salubrious blow to narcissims, both national and individual. Translation failure demarcates intersubjective limits....Translation is a significant medium of subject re-formation and political change."

Maybe you can anticipate, now, through these expanded lenses, the emergence of my re-re-reading of "Adjectives of Order." Thinking about the poem as a exemplar of world literature, as occupying a site "in-translation," it is still, of course about a "person working to make sense of his experience through language." But it becomes, in this re-framing, less about the "ruthless impersonality" of grammar, more an invitation to think about the limits of my own perspective, my own sense-making, my own grammar. Studying Spanish in Guatemala a few years ago was a profoundly dislocating experience for me; I couldn't "leave the planet English" freely enough to think through-or-with a new grammar. I hated the disordering and reordering required, resisted it heartily (and so was not very successful @ the project). Now, re-re-reading Teague's poem, I wonder: what is the grammar of Vietnamese? Does it place value on the order of adjectives? Is it a system that can express, any more effectively than English can, the experience of war and profound loss? What about French, the language which arrived in Vietnam in an earlier wartime? Are any of these formal systems more-or-less successful than others in sequencing the unorderable?

Apter's work focuses on the special relevance of translation as a matter of war and peace; she thinks about language politics, language wars and transmission failures. In her hands, translation shifts away from a model focused on "fidelity to the original," and more towards "transcoding," in which everything is translatable and nothing is: all words in a perpetual state of in-translation and mis-translation. But, taken as an a priori condition, translation failure  can be turned to advantage (as it is in Teague's poem), as an enabling mechanism of poetic truth.

The impossibility of translation also exists within a single language--Apter asks us to think of Jews, Arabs, and French, all "neighbored, yet separated by the French language," which had been "loaned to different communities of speakers." Think of being estranged in your home language. Apter calls up Spitzer's "Learning Turkish" and Said's "Living in Arabic" to evoke the ambiguity of comparison carried by every word, the grammatical markers of doubt that act as release value for the pressure that builds up in the course of fighting to stay alive...

Finally, in turning to the role of digital technology, Apter brings the question of translation back to those of formal systems which are bedeviling us elsewhere: as we pursue the goal of technological reproducibility, as everything becomes translatable through the medium of digital code, which aims to be unambiguous, what happens to the proliferation of meanings evoked by a poem like this one?



Anne Dalke's picture

"All grammars leak"

As I mentioned elsewhere, I've been reviewing some studies of the evolution of language for the new ESem on (biological, cultural, individual) evolution that Paul and I will be teaching this fall. The special issue of Science (303, 5662: February 27, 2004) on Evolution of Language includes an essay by David Graddol on "The Future of Language" which has some interesting suggestions about re-thinking the notion that grammar constitutes a formal (and fully accountable) system:

"No one has ever successfully produced a comprehensive and accurate grammar of any language. In the words of the early 20th-century anthropological linguist, Edward Sapir, "all grammars leak"...It seems that much of what we have expected of grammars can be better explained by focusing on words and the complex way in which they keep each other's company. Some words tend to be used as the subject rather than object of a clause, others may typically appear in prepositional phrases. The human brain is able to store experience of how words pattern, what kinds of text they appear in, what kinds of rhetorical structure will follow them. This is the new science of collocation and colligation that illuminates how texts work."

I love that phrase about the wyas in which words "keep each other's company"--it invokes for me the sort of friendly adjustment that happens when we hang out w/ one another: there is a range of possible behaviors, but no rules. It's more capacious (leaky?) than a formal system might allow.

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