good poetry vs. bad poetry

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Readers’ Choices (Which Are Seldom Writers’ Choices)

Here’s one example of a surprise readers’ pick from my second collection, Lost Sherpa of Happiness. It’s a poem about going to the dentist to have cavities drilled as a kid. This poem was a bear to write, and often poems that give us fits and become “projects”  remain “problem children” to the end. Maybe authors hold a grudge.

But, in this case, more than one reader has liked it, to which I say every time, “Really? That one?” Let’s give it a go:


In the Dentist’s Killing Fields

In the fluoride-free days of the 60s, a boy’s
tooth nerves were fair game. The weight of a dentist’s
waiting room meant something.

Four beige walls, stoic chairs, pictures
of wildflowers and bees. My feet tiny
clouds over the carpeted ground, I could hear
hunger with the mechanical whine of the dentist’s drill:
the room with the white porcelain vortex of water,
the explorers and probes, excavators and extractors.
And, poised above all, the silver praying mantis maneuvering
its spike in and out of a victim’s head.
Biting. Spitting. Chewing at its leisure.

The sound sprayed chills across my skin, recalling
past molar trenchings, enamel and bone and saliva popping
effervescence over chin and paper bib.

I tried distracting myself with the shiny-edged page on my lap.
Highlights for Children: the cartoon morality plays,
the black on white antithesis of Goofus inflicted on Gallant.

I tried watching traffic on Center Street; the constellations
of cars and trucks and buses rolling to the stop light outside
the office window: pausing, glinting sunlight, accelerating
escapes. Green, yellow, red, green. An old man in fedora, smoking
in his Studebaker; a family laughing in the cavity
of their Impala; a couple stiff as mannequins modeling for Ford.

A woman behind me said, “Kenneth?” nicely, and I glanced
at my father, who refused to look up, flipping his
Field & Stream. The voice led me back to the doctor’s.
The meadow of metal. The plastic shell of slippery chair.
The mantis shadows behind an insect eye of light,
tilting and curious about its next mouth.

Last memory: hearing the gurgling, feeling the sucking hook
snag my lip. “Here’s a brave young man,” Dr. Hebert said, pulling
up his plate of point and pick. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”
He donned a mask beneath the fly facets
of his coke-bottle glasses. He leaned heavily into the light.


Perhaps the poem is helped as much by shared experience and knowing nods as it is by merit. Perhaps it is the way simple tools and machinery come to life.

In any event, I’ll take it, because no poet turns away a compliment. And anything that makes the memory of dentists less traumatic can’t be a bad thing.

No, it’s a good thing. How do I know? More than one reader has said so!