The first one came out the week of her birthday.
This second tooth’s harder: she pushes
and pushes at it with her tongue, tries to grip and drag it out.
Nothing comes but blood.
In the museum is the jawbone of a child, undated.
A label in fine ink: Upper and Lower Milk Teeth
and first permanent molar.
You can see the next loose milk tooth,
jutting squintly from the lower jaw.
Nobody dislodged it when the child died,
nobody kept that little white seed-pearl.
They left the mouth as it was, when its tongue
could wiggle the wobbly tooth,
and there was almost a gap in the grin.
At the school gate she’s clutching the tooth
in a paper towel. It fell out at playtime
just when she’d finished her apple and milk.
That night she wraps it in tissue
puts it under her pillow
with a note for the fairy not to take it away.
In the morning, a shining twenty pence
that she puts with the tooth in her heart-shaped box.
Inside her mouth, the permanent molars,
the teeth of an adult, are pushing and pushing through.
About this poem
To celebrate the Quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, twenty-one Scottish poets were commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write poems inspired by the College’s collections and work. Like surgeons they have used ‘the hand that sees’, but in this case the writing hand that acts at the prompting of insight and imagination. The poems and their comments, alongside photographs of items that inspired them, were published in The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn, and published by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in association with the Scottish Poetry Library in 2005.
When I came back from visiting the RCS museum, I’d intended to write about bones from the tiny fingerbones of foetuses to the calcified adult skulls. But instead I wrote this poem, which was a direct response to the events which happened chronologically as they do in the poem: I came to Edinburgh, leaving behind my six-year-old daughter with her wobbly tooth, then saw the teeth in the museum, and the day after I got back, my daughter’s tooth fell out.
I found the jawbone in the museum very poignant, perhaps because children’s teeth were on my mind. The contrast between that (probably) Victorian child and my own seemed very stark, and hopefully the poem gives a sense of this – for example the playtime ‘apple and milk’ alludes to things that 21st-century children can take for granted, while the lines about the tooth fairy hint at the way they are perhaps spoiled and over-protected. But I also wanted the poem to convey the idea that, whatever the differences in how and when they live, children are essentially the same in their physical reaction to a loose tooth. The last lines hint at the ambiguity of adulthood, which may not be an easy state to attain; there’s also a sense of the generations going on, of milk teeth falling out and adult ones coming through, as an image of life and death.