American Life in Poetry: Column 789


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 human 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.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 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). Poem reprinted by permission of Deirdre O’Connor and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2020 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.