I have a dental appointment coming up in a few weeks and I’m dreading it. It’s only a routine cleaning, but I don’t have a good attitude when it comes to dentistry. Maybe it’s the feeling of sitting with my mouth wide open while someone pokes around with her fingers. Or maybe it has to do with my early experiences.

My parents didn’t have much money when I was growing up and certainly didn’t have dental insurance, so the only time we went to the dentist was when we had a toothache. Our dentist’s office was about 10 blocks from our house, so I would trudge along feeling more anxious with every step. I’d heard a rumor about our dentist. He had a small TV mounted on the wall above the chair, to distract the patients, I guess. The story is that he got distracted himself and drilled through one girl’s tongue. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it made me uneasy.

I suppose I’m lucky that I didn’t live in an even earlier time when getting your teeth fixed could be a real life-or-death procedure. Fillings were used in the 1500s to treat cavities, but this was not general practice. It’s more likely you went to see a barber or blacksmith, who might use forceps or pliers to perform an extraction without the aid of an anesthetic.

Michelle Menting’s poem describes an uncomfortable event, based on her own dental experience. In it, she meets her then-boyfriend’s mother for the first time from a seat in the dental chair. Her aim in this poem is to keep “a balance of humor and precariousness.” With that in mind, she weaves in the scene from Little Shop of Horrors. “I felt I needed to use some moment from pop culture that readers would recognize,” she notes. This image, along with the stark dialog and the reference to the identification of human remains through their dentistry, adds to the apprehensive, yet droll tone of the piece.

This poem is from Michelle Menting’s book, “Leaves Surface Like Skin,” published by Terrapin Books, 2017. Michelle is a writer, editor and educator. She teaches at the University of Southern Maine.

Oral History

It’s a Sunday in May 2002, and I’m getting prepped

for a free cleaning in a Charlottesville dental office.

I tell the hygienist, the mother of my then-boyfriend,

that my cavities were the result of having braces.

She responds with only, “Open wide. No, wider.”

 

When she fastens a bib around my neck, a lamplight

halo shines through her blonde curls. And I think of that scene

in Little Shop of Horrors where Steve Martin plays a dentist

and Rick Moranis plays a version of Rick Moranis

(kind and small, with a weakness for lovers who bite).

 

I know this: that my dental records would be used

to identify me if I’m ever found tied up and tangled

in rhododendron or mountain laurel on the Blue Ridge

Parkway. And I know I would only be lost until I’m found

because of the three amalgam fillings in my upper right molars

and the small chip on my bottom left lateral incisor.

 

I hope that my breath doesn’t smell, as I let this woman

explore my mouth and pick at all my history. I know

she can see my habits: how long I brush, whether I gargle,

whether I floss. Whether I hold my tongue and chew

on my words or practice lip service. Whether I’m good enough.

 

Her son sits in the corner waiting, fluorided, and perfect.

I grip the vinyl chair as she leans in closer and whispers

into my ear, “Uh-oh, this feels like a soft spot.”

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.

filed under: