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American Life in Poetry: ‘At the Dentist’s’

By Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06

Deirdre O’Connor is the director of the Writing Center at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and the following poem is from her new collection from Able Muse Press, “The Cupped Field.” I’m sticking my neck out here, but I suspect this is the first poem in history to picture a group of children making a practice visit to a dentist. And such a touching picture it is.

At the Dentist’s

“Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it,” reads the needlepoint

above the dentist’s door, beyond which “Little Learners”

are doing time in the chair. One at a time, up and down,

they practice how to be not afraid, to tip their chins,

spit. And then to brush in circles gently

for two minutes. No blood today, no needles, drills,

just a plastic sack of gifts: a magnet of a happy tooth,

a purple toothbrush, paste. In the waiting room,

their winter coats are stacked: smooth, inflatable animals,

an occasional Pittsburgh Steelers in the mix.

The youngest ones need help getting their arms in,

getting zipped, and when they’re all lined up and holding

hands in pairs, they lift their faces as if toward God

to the camera. Having been happily trained for pain,

they flash their unharmed smiles, and in my mind, I exit

with them, all my ex-selves, mittens attached

to their jackets, bright and unbreakable.

Poem copyright 2019 by Deirdre O’Connor, “At the Dentist’s,” published under the title “The Yoke,” from “The Cupped Field” (Able Muse Press, 2019).

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