Death, where be thy sting?

Seamus Heaney has died.

Last week I found Tori Amos was fifty.

Both things are disagreeable.  Although having a root canal is worse.


The extremely young, friendly and informative man who did the first part of the root canal procedure gave me this information sheet.  I haven’t read it because (a) like most people I don’t like reading about how I am going to be paying for my own torture, and (b) the woman at the top is clearly not about to have a root canal so she must be laughing at me… “sucker, that sure is going to hurt”.

Anyway, what would the information sheet say?  This is what a healthy tooth looks like.  This is what your tooth looks like.  This is what we’re going to do to your tooth you poor benighted bastard.

Again, like most people, I hate going to the dentist.  It’s cute when they try – as they are with both of my children – to make going to the school clinic a fun experience filled with buzzy bees and star charts, but all of this must come to end on the day of anyone’s first filling when the now teenager realises they’ve been had, and it ain’t about buzzy bees and it’s all about $200 and a drill in the head.  It’s much better now than it was of course.  I can remember getting a filling when I was at primary school.  There was a little purpose-built clinic down the road from the school where the school dental nurse did her work.  She did her work without painkillers.  Getting that filling was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.  I came out glad to be alive, and weak at the knees.  For some reason I said “thank you”.  Probably I will say “thank you” to Satan at the gates of hell.

Then there was the time when I was twenty and being a slob caught up with me.  I can’t remember how many fillings I got that day, but the whole think took a long time and actually changed my life.  So traumatised was I by this experience that I stopped eating crap and lost about 15kg.

On the other hand, modern dentistry is actual proof that we live in the best of times.  Whenever I think it would be fun to time travel to a distant era I think about the dentistry of that distant era and change my mind.  Pain killers, and antibiotics and lasers are wonderful things.  Of course because of painkillers and antibiotics and lasers part of the reason for disliking going to the dentist has gone: it’s rarely a painful experience anymore.  I still hate it.  The reason I hate it is because it makes me profoundly aware of what I am and where I’m going.  What I am is human, and where I’m going… well, you’re going there too so let’s just not say it.

This is my second root canal and the message I get, the subtext I receive, from the long, cheerful dentist explanations and pamphlets is that I’m 40 not 20 and shit is going to start falling apart from now on.


When you gonna make up your mind?

When you gonna love you as much as I do?

When you gonna make up your mind,

’cause things are going to change so fast

Winter, Tori Amos

It was when I was 19 or 20 that I was introduced to Seamus Heaney at university.  About the same time that I met Tori Amos in fact.  It was love at first sight (Seamus, not Tori, my literary leanings are often not hetero).  His poetry was at the end of a year-long course and most of the slack first year English Lit. students had stopped going to lectures.  Even though I was also slack I always went to my lectures, especially my English Lit. ones.  Discovering Seamus that way was perfect.  A mostly empty lecture hall at night, and a lecturer who just loved Seamus.  It’s why university is great.  There are people there who read Seamus, and you can hang out with them.  That’s what university is for if you’re in the humanities wing, and it worries me when schools constantly lecture their students on thinking ahead about their career paths.  What about Seamus?  He’s not on a career path, but it’s better to have lived a life with Seamus in it than a marketing degree.

The collection was called North.  It has those poems about the bog people.  Both the bog people themselves and those poems fascinate.  They remind you of what you are and where you’re going.  Perhaps.  After all, in the end who knows either of those things truly.  Probably it was the perhaps that made those bog people poems good.

Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.
Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.

They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair
And made an exhibition of its coil,
Let the air at her leathery beauty.
Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:
Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,
Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.
Diodorus Siculus confessed
His gradual ease with the likes of this:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

Nothing easy.  The murdered in the ground, the ancient oppressor, the modern parallels, and the provocation and resistance of the girl to interpretation: reverence or otherwise.  Every line can be admired or the whole.  “Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings”.

So Seamus is dead, and Tori is 50, and I am having another root canal.  I increasingly discover that life at 40 is about holding more contradictions and ambiguities in my head, like keeping multiple juggling balls in the air.  When I was 19 or 20 life was more a series of single ideas like: Seamus is a poet and here are his poems; Tori is a singer and here are her songs; this is my body and it is young.  Now life has become about holding on to simultaneous feelings about those and many, many other things; the memory of those first feelings and the now of them.  You have to be honest with yourself.  Tori sounds thinner to me now but I must remember how much I liked her.  Seamus’ bell rings deeper and longer than it once did.  As does the bell of my body.

And the credit card bill.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

One thought on “Death, where be thy sting?”

  1. I too have mixed memories of school dental clinics, mainly being that my mother was a school dental nurse until she retired at 60. I used to work for her as a cleaner when at high school. Emptying the surgical bin was one of my daily choses. Handled carefully with rubber gloves as I emptied out the quantity of blood soaked gauze pads and cotton rolls etc. from my mother’s tooth extracting activities of the day, then carefully wrapped and disposed of this output and then went on to sterilise the huge stainless steel surgical bucket. I also used to empty the instrument steriliser and put away all the tools, including the huge tooth extraction pliers into the special glass cabinet they were kept in.

    Check this movie out for a re-enactment of the school child’s fear of going to the “murder house” in my days of primary schooling –

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