American Life in Poetry: Column 223

There’s lots of literature about the loss of innocence, because we all share in that loss and literature is about what we share. Here’s a poem by Alexandra Teague, a San Franciscan, in which a child’s awakening to the alphabet coincides with another awakening:  the unsettling knowledge that all of us don’t see things in the same way.

Language Lessons

The carpet in the kindergarten room

was alphabet blocks; all of us fidgeting

on bright, primary letters. On the shelf

sat that week’s inflatable sound. The “th”

was shaped like a tooth. We sang

about brushing up and down, practiced

exhaling while touching our tongues

to our teeth. Next week, a puffy U

like an upside-down umbrella; the rest

of the alphabet deflated. Some days,

we saw parents through the windows

to the hallway sky. “Look, a fat lady,”

a boy beside me giggled. Until then

I’d only known my mother as beautiful.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Alexandra Teague, whose first book, “Mortal Geography,” winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Prize, is forthcoming in 2010 from Persea Books. Reprinted from “Third Coast,” Fall 2008, by permission of Alexandra Teague and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.