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The Dental Contract

Trust. Once they’re inside the cave of the mouth, you’re in impenetrable darkness. You’ll never see what they can see, and if you did, you wouldn’t recognise it. When I was younger and more immersed in the immanence of tragedy, I often thought of concentration camp victims.

Succumb. If you don’t co-operate, they can’t help you. This was my brother’s advice, given me around the age of 12. He also applied it to doctors. Resistance will display your ignorance, cause pain, and is ultimately futile.

Breathe. Being body-conscious—label me anal—I became familiar with the art of deep breathing. It proved me a hero if I could absorb the sting of the anaesthetic, the obsessive focus of the drill and the collateral rough handling in long, mystically transporting breaths.

Mind the gap. At twelve, I had the pleasant experience of having my wisdom (teeth) extracted under anaesthetic. Put me under any time; let me hammock in the sub-sonic voice. Luckily, I retained the rest of my white sheep for much longer. My brother wasn’t so lucky. At fifteen he had all his teeth removed. Our dental plan was the peasant’s one: 1. Medical Card; 2. Trust the Expert. It bought us the ground-zero approach to medicine: When in doubt, take it out. My mother had teeth plus womb removed. What did she need them for?

That would be a genetic matter. My orthodontist tells me that I inherited my mouth from one parent and my teeth from another. This caused a bottom tooth to get pushed out of line like a queue-hopper. I suppose it also explains why yet another brother had a rake of teeth extracted in his teens, why my sister had sinus surgery that may have been the reason for her lifelong migraines, and her front teeth grew somewhat askew. She still had a beautiful smile, presumably inherited from someone.

Stare at the white light. A handsome and irritable dentist once told me to keep my eyes open during the procedure. That must have been before I perfected the art of laying back and thinking of concentration camp victims. I see what he meant. Don’t you feel more of a sense of ownership when you can observe the process and itemise every object in the surgery? The white light becomes comforting after a while, a sort of lesser sun.

Prefer the Women. The first time I encountered a woman dentist, or more specifically, her fingers, I felt a distinct stream of balm in the psycho-dental ambience. When I'd got over the shock of having no shocks, it was a form of bliss to be so softly handled.

Live in 2016 and have good dental insurance. In this age no-one needs to know you’re toothless. Roger Moore has said that his mouth contains more metal than calcium. Ludwig II of Bavaria, who built the fairytale castle called Neuschwanstein, reportedly locked himself away and drugged himself to early death because of the state of his teeth.

Be still and know they are gods. Dentistry is the closest thing to a miracle you’re ever likely to experience. You sidle in a sketch and walk out a portrait. By now they’ve discovered occupational therapy and customer care, so they will sort you out with pleasant conversation and a smile. Better still, the Hungarian dentists will sort you out without extracting your life savings as well.

Give thanks. You know not the day nor the hour.


Paul Casey has a nice poem about dentists that includes a technical tour of his inner mouth. It’s called ‘Painless’ and it’s in his collection, home more or less (Salmon, 2012). One of its twenty-six verses is:

They are all lost lovers, each an image
of fascination finely tattooed onto
a chronology of painless recollections.
They’re better than any psychologist.
I’ve learned psychology from dentists.

Here’s one I wrote myself, for therapy or something.

The Hard Problem of Teeth

and the way they express your genetic code
in their colour, shape and size, is one met
each day, unavoidable, if you have an eye
for faces, especially your own, in every shiny

Mine are too big for my mouth, the orthodontist
said. My teeth and my jaw come from different
genetic sources. Only one of my family have
decent teeth. The rest have very few or they’re

It is a marvel to me (and an irritation) that this
generation of Irish sports laser-beam calcoids,
despite its love for Starbucks. Justice, as usual,
is not done. Flushed through with milk, I remain

And my sons—inheritors of my jealous tombstones
and his grappling incisors. In a world of veneers
there is little hope but to amass wealth as an avatar,
spend half of it on surgery, and emerge, blinking,
with a grin.

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