The only poem I have ever written directly about dentistry is called “A Patient”. When I wrote it, some fifty years ago, James Kirkup’s “A Correct Compassion” was the only example I knew of a poem ‘about’ medicine. It is both a vivid description of a cardiac surgeon, observed by medical students, performing a mitral stenosis valvotomy, and an extended metaphor for the writing of a poem.
At the end of the operation (and the end of the poem), the surgeon’s ‘“I do not stitch up the pericardium. // It is not necessary.’” is matched by the poet’s conclusion:
For this is imagination’s other place, / Where only necessary things are done.”
The occasion of my own poem was less dramatic, but I like to think it demonstrates that a dental extraction, another occasion where ‘only necessary things are done’, can make a fitting subject for a poem.
7pm. Emergency extraction.
Miss K., Malaysian; abscessed lower molar.
A tiny mouth, tight with scar tissue
from childhood injury and surgery.
First, the local. No landmarks palpable.
By guess and by God, then – can’t be helped.
I slip the needle-tip through the mucosa
round where (God willing!) the nerve must run:
inject, slowly, withdraw the needle: ‘Rinse out?’
She stops me a moment with her eyes:
‘Are you a Christian?’ ‘No. But I was.’ (I admit.)
‘You should be one now!’ She turns to spit – and I
guiltily to glance up: was that crack in the ceiling
there before? Like writing on the wall?
Weighed in her balance, found wanting, I retreat
to sorting instruments for the job ahead.
feel sharp here?’ (The instrument sinks
deep down beside her tooth, and not a muscle
twitches. The nerve-block’s working first attempt!)
‘We’re doing well so far!’ – She shakes her head,
points to the air above me: ‘It is the Lord.’
I smile my reassurance, but step aside
discreetly, taking no chances.
of an elevator in the periodontal space.
So we do. She rolls her eyes heavenwards.
My hand quivers, then steadies: Now we apply
leverage to the root-face, so… And there,
that’s got it moving… Well, not quite
so simple here; but soon the fibres give way
and we lift it out (sooner than I’d expected).
on Hemorrhage and How to Fix It – ‘Christ
tells me that just as I came here to you
to lose my pain, so you must return to Him,
and He will take your pain.’
All I can do is smile. She smiles right back.
Alan Roddick: Alan Roddick has retired from a dentistry career in general practice and public health. He served on the State Literary Fund Advisory Committee, presented the National Radio programme, Poetry, and wrote a monograph on Allan Curnow for Oxford University Press. He was the editor of the New Zealand Dental Journal for four years, and since 1973 has been Charles Brasch’s literary executor. Alan lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. “A Patient” was recently republished in his new collection, Getting it Right.