My Mother’s Teeth

You had been held without effort and with indifference
for two full days in the soil’s untidy grip before

I found them in the small round Tupperware
on the shelf above your sink. Those pale, low
battlements against which your words were born.

I say the body’s ferocity to die is as real
as its ferocity to live. I remember the way
the firm seam of your lips refused every

effort we made to feed you tiny portions of food
and crushed tablets folded with honey.
I knew the undertaker had packed your throat

with gauze, caulked your mouth
into a pleasing shape and then wired your jaw
finally closed and I began dreaming

you’d been kidnapped, your mouth stuffed
with whatever was close at hand—scarf, sock,
underwear, duster—because it felt as if the world

were holding you ransom, as if a typed note
might drop through the galvanized sneer
of the letter box; that whatever the price,

I would pay it. We had cleared the paraphernalia
of your dying away: the baby food and morphine
and needles. The bed. The commode. The dressings

and tablets and fortified juices, and the oxygen
with its skeins of tubing. And because I needed
to hold them fast, in the way I held your body

fast—in mind, in the earth, with your feet
to the hills and your head to the bay and its small talk
of salt—I climbed to the lake with your teeth,

in their plastic temple, in my pocket.
You must remember how it is: the higher
you climb, the deeper the world inhabits

its essentials until there is nothing
but wind and brightness, hand in hand, heaving
through the ling and bog cotton;

and, close to the soil, the solid-green mouths
of the sundew, which never truly close, building
their sweetness out of light and rain and the rendered

bodies of insects. And I threw them in: I threw
your teeth into the silken grip of the water,
which treasures everything it is offered—even tannin

and shadow, even the dark droppings of sheep
like round buttons, even bones unbuckled
in the heather. I say the mouth

is the most dangerous kingdom of all. I say paradise
is there behind the gates of the teeth because
it is there that the tongue’s nimble wand

names its hungers. And I say life means nothing
if we can’t be brought willingly down and consumed
by the terrible needs in another’s mouth.

There were warriors once who pried
the teeth from every defeated adversary simply
to ensure that with his mouth plundered

and his words unformed each man would walk
unarmed into the next life. Just think
what such a belief reveals about the purpose of words

in this life. But I say even in this life, sometimes,
there is no language. Only gesture. I threw them out
as far as I could. I say the living can be wounded

like water. With a final shy sound they slipped through
the skin of the lake. And I kissed them, of course,

before I threw them. Of course. Of course I held them,
gently, and with both hands, and I put them to my lips.

Copyright Jude Nutter. First published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry Fall (2010).

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