Word of Mouth

After a Nick Cave “Soundsuit” made from buttons and found vintage abacus

When George Washington became president in
1789 he had only one tooth in his head, a single
premolar poking up from his gums. His dent-
ures were fashioned from lead, gold wire springs,
brass screws, the teeth of humans and cows, ele-
phant ivory, and hippopotamus bone. It is a myth
that he had false teeth made of wood. A mis-
perception put forth by those misled by the hair-
line fractures that ivory and bone possess. Just as
cherry wine will stain cloth with a rust-hued vein,
Washington’s fondness for dark wine blemished
his teeth. The fractures eventually darkening, un-
til resembling the grain in a piece of wood.
The darkening of fractures is rather curious.
The makeup of the flesh, the constitution of
origin, the trackers of bloodlines thrown off
the trail. It is difficult to determine what discolor-
ations have tunneled their way through the body.
Spider veins climbing the back of my legs like a
winding river mapping the trauma. An unspoken
collective of ephemeral bits and bytes, suffering
most eloquently preserved in the mouth. The skin
of one’s teeth decides many a fate. A black woman’s
incisor settling down inside a white man’s maw.
Overall, a quizzical look, an off-color joke about
progress, the very blood a trick of the eye, an ocean
blue on the outside of the skin, a blushing
red if viewed just beneath the sheath.



A tooth is made up of the crown and the root,
all the King’s Men destined to revolt. There are
many ways to worm your way inside, many open-
ings in the body of an animal. Some orifices gated
with white entryways. A wooden portcullis, a pick-
et fence, a laced corset secured tightly by a maid,
a pointed geode just waiting to be pulled, the cavern
wall glittering in the dark. Sharp crystals ornament
the cave’s jawbone. Cave canem, quite naturally speak-
ing. A hooded hole a place for some to hide or go
seek. A toothless whistle the signal for the slave
hunting bloodhounds, with canines fanged like
water moccasins. The swamp mud gushing like
the suppertime mush sloshing between the gums
of a Confederate soldier. The terror of limbs at
odds with the self. In World War I, trench foot
meant frequent amputations, the blade sliding
like floss between each toe. Some diseases attack
the foot or mouth, gums left inflamed in the
cross fire. A grieving mother wears dog tags
around her neck. Her son’s baby shoes and teeth
cast in bronze. The pulp at the center is how the
tooth receives nourishment, how it transmits
signals to the brain. The forgetting makes the
present tense possible. Memory is the gravity
of the mind. All the icebergs have started to
melt, milky objects left hanging by a
string, the doorknobs means to an end.



The keyboard’s toothy smile splayed wide,
the flatlined cursor blinks impatiently on the
screen, my fingers struggle to tap into word
processing. I monitor all of the track changes.
Even the computer is a slave to death. Its in-
nards already bygone, its body obsolete upon
year of purchase. I am a librarian, swimming the
digital divide, my predecessor’s paddles — 
a mass of floppy disks in an office closet.
They pile up like the teeth of slaves waiting
for sale. An affluent businessman at the door,
his hands panning the saliva for white gold.
His fingers parting the cavity, pursed lips cooing,
I need something of yours to call my own. The desire
to chew and smile at will. My grandmother lost
her mind before her teeth, lost the memories be-
fore the enamel gave way to rot. My face has my
mother’s abacus features. We are, in fact, diphyo-
dont. In one lifetime we develop two sets of teeth.
The missing space filled with air, a hollow exile
before the native tongue. I pray my unborn child
will have a gap. What the French call “dents du
bonheur” or lucky teeth. The womb’s peephole is
rather impressionable. I will fasten the buttons of
time. I will take the baby’s body in my own,
whisper a plea in its discriminating ear:
Try to keep your wits about you, my love.
Memory is about the future, not the past.

More Poems by Alison C. Rollins