Eastern European Teeth Stories: Anatomy of a Genre

Few poems exude immigrant displacement as powerfully as Joseph Brodsky’s, “In the Lake District,” written shortly after his immigration to America. Brodsky describes himself as a “spy,” “spearhead,” and “some fifth column of a rotting culture” masking as literature professor by day. Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a town where “dentists thrive,” the displaced and alienated poet can only muster “half-finished sentences.” He betrays no personal distress in the poem, except for the indirect descriptions of painted dental forceps gloriously decorating storefronts, while his own teeth resemble “ruins more abject than any Parthenon.” As Brodsky explains in a later interview, the last simile was inspired by his dental troubles upon arrival to the United States mangled by Soviet dentistry. He then narrates unsparingly the pain of five extractions: from virtually passing out from the pain and having to be dragged home by friends, to being still unconscious when slapped with the enormous dentist bill. Its own peculiar genre, Brodsky’s teeth story simultaneously exudes vulnerability and stoic endurance.

In this sense, it borrows on a rich tradition of Eastern European teeth stories that include the notable declaration, by Dostoevsky’s cantankerous underground man, that “there’s pleasure even in a toothache.” Certainly there is pleasure of the narrative kind, for to tell a teeth story is a bit like relating the intricacies of battle scars. Brodsky extracts perverse joy from the daring bravado and immense fortitude of character reflected in his five extractions. This fortitude is surely tested by exile, but the five lost teeth are the only outwardly sign, and metonymically at best, of the sorrow and loss underlying the poet’s emigration. If the rest of the time the carefully crafted persona of literature professor serves him well, the Soviet ruins inside his mouth betray his alien status; he is permanently marked by Soviet dentistry. Yet he calls his ruin a Parthenon, which suggests glory and perhaps a perplexing pride about being marked by the decaying masterpieces inside his mouth that pierce through the pose of cultural integration. They render him perpetually unassimilated.

As a first-generation immigrant with my own share of experiences with Eastern European dentistry, I found myself thinking of Brodsky earlier this month when my American dentist announced I had to lose a molar. Mine was another thriving dentist, who rapidly mansplained something about a “beautiful extraction” and offered his services in restoring the tooth for a considerable fee. But after years of undergoing all manner of dental tortures and expenses, something about the beautiful extraction and the dispassionate professionalism with which the crushing news was delivered, provoked a profound, contrarian anger in me. The anger, in turn, unleashed a desperate quest to save my doomed tooth. I would sit through all varieties of root canal reworkings and buildups; no sacrifice or expenditures would be too great. Alas, preliminary research suggested that there was only one millimeter of healthy tissue connecting the roots of the molar, which meant that even if the decay and new infection were treated and a massive reconstruction undertaken, the whole edifice could easily collapse into nothing. A specialist who looked at my file said the tooth was “quite compromised” and gave it a five percent survival rate, adding that there was no reason to agonize over the decision about such a hopeless specimen.

And yet these rational prognostications did not account for the profound, torrential struggle brewing within. What was this profound sense of loss and longing, surely not over a mere tooth? Was my rotting molar worthy of such emotional furor? Not for itself, perhaps, because after a root canal, several post buildups, and a crown, there was little tooth left. But this shell, this ruin, commanded deep reverence in me precisely for its unassimilable rottenness. One can sound, look, and be a certain way, but we each share such deep intimacy with our molars, these holdovers from our pasts and discrete bearers of our private legacies. If I die under mysterious circumstances, the police will have little trouble identifying me by my elaborately restored ruins.

All my life I have told or been told stories of dental endurance. Teeth are also prominent in the same manner in my favorite novel, Anna Karenina, where a story about a toothache serves as a receptacle for displaced vulnerability and emotional distress. Tolstoy repeatedly notes that Anna Karenina’s lover, Aleksey Vronsky, has fantastic teeth, which emerge to dazzle each time he laughs. But when Anna dies by suicide, the heartbroken Vronsky heads to the Russo-Turkish war hoping to meet his end in battle. His considerable psychic despair remains unarticulated; like Brodsky, he is stoic, except for the fact that he develops a sudden, painful toothache.

Where I come from, teeth stories are greater than themselves; they are their own peculiar lament, a rare admission of vulnerability. In fact, in my native Albanian, the word for tooth, dhëmb, bears an indirect etymological tie to the verb “to hurt”: dhëmb, which has assumed a life of its own in folk etymology. One might surmise from this connection that, at least for Albanians, teeth stories are really stories about pain, perhaps the only kind we ever feel comfortable sharing.   

Tooth pain is something we all succumb to, that keeps us awake at night, mouth aflame as pain receptors pulsate in nerves running through decaying enamels. But the fury inside was less about pain, even though my personal “abject ruin” was by no means painless, but rather, to lose this ravaged Parthenon meant losing a concrete part of my past — my ruin had its foundations, or first fillings, laid in Eastern Europe, with the amalgam typical of Eastern European dentistry which had discolored the tooth. Mirroring the geographical transitions in my life, the tooth had then been worked over in various North American locations, first in New York, and then the Midwest. At some point it had been made smaller and made to fit within the confines of a porcelain crown with the outward appearance of a healthy tooth. But looking at the X-ray of the ruin in my mouth, there was no such uniformity. Parts of my past came alive as each of the various strata of dental intervention carried stories I had been told by fellow sufferers, stories radiating with pain, and memorable precisely because of it.

My Parthenon had been built upon cross-generational stories of dental trauma.

Beginning at the foundations, which were now practically rotted through with decay, I could picture the image of my paternal grandmother, who lived well into her 90s, but began to speak of death as her greatest confidante already in her mid-60s, after my grandfather died. At some point in the course of her long life, Albanian dentists forced her to have her natural teeth pulled out, so she could get dentures. She agreed and endured several extractions, but hated her dentures and was largely toothless for the last 15 years of her life. Her voice and face changed, paving the way for the old-age dementia that insidiously engulfed her.

My grandmother told and retold the story of having her teeth removed whenever I visited. It became an echo, as did the distaste for the dentures they (the dentists) made for her. These repetitive stories were nothing like the stories she told while I was growing up, with her mouth full of strong, discolored teeth. Back then, she described the agony of having tooth pain while enduring the abject privation of communist times — mending clothes and bed sheets repeatedly, boiling water for the bath, cooking economically, working with infants every morning at dawn, because they(this time, the communists) took everything from our family. Those gray-yellow teeth of hers reflected everything she had survived, whereas the pristine dentures stank of ennui from a new era when all was provided for her, and she did not know how to pass the time.

My maternal grandmother, who lost many of her molars during her early 30s, had her own share of teeth stories. She remembered a phenomenal dentist who trained in Italy and had the gentlest touch. He worked on her teeth with a masterful new drill that made the pain more bearable, used anesthesia, and even performed root canals, which were hardly ever done in Albania. The man was a prince among socialist dentists. Yet my grandfather, a prince among socialist university professors, was a jealous husband, and did not enjoy the discussions of the dentist as some kind of messiah. So eventually, she had to settle for the female dentist trained in Enver Hoxha’s socialist school of dental malpractice. With utmost dejection my grandmother told me about how this hack destroyed most of her teeth. “But at least your grandfather stopped tormenting me with his jealousy,” she sighed sadly.

Moving past the base of the tooth to the gum line, we enter the next layer of dentistry, which reminds me of stories my parents told me. I remember how my mother broke off a front tooth while biting on a large chocolate during a flight to Denmark. Judging by the quality of Albanian dentistry, she considered herself fortunate to have been in Copenhagen for the replacement. The veneer she had done there lasted close to 20 years, and by the time she had to have it replaced, which took multiple tries and a new dentist, the first, difficult phase of our immigration to the United States was at least already over. It is amongst one of her most avid, yet sadly unrealized, parental wishes that I be spared such dental turmoil.

One of my earlier memories of childhood, during a family vacation before my parents’ divorce, is of a group of men gathering around and holding down my father at a dental office urgently opened in the middle of the night, so he could have one of his molars forcibly pulled without anesthesia. Afterwards, my father spoke of his lost tooth with a survivor’s pride, but I was horrified by what I had witnessed, something so primal and violent that I was convinced they would kill my daddy. A year later, the cross-generational trauma resonated with me, when he held my hand and took me to the elementary school dentist so I could have two front baby teeth pulled. I thought back to that fateful night and terror enveloped me, but the extraction was practically painless — over before I knew it had begun. After I lost my two baby teeth and alternated between visiting and avoiding my dentist, I developed my own kind of survivor’s pride. It grew out of years of dental trauma that included several fillings without anesthesia, 10 root canals, over six extractions (all wisdom teeth), and numerous crowns. To this day, if I close my eyes, I hear the slow drill of my school dentist buzzing somewhere around my temples. I remember the dry mouth and the chocking feeling in the back of my throat, coming on usually right when I absolutely had to keep my mouth open for some dental maneuver, the numbness, the sore jaw afterwards. But these qualified as healing pains — what truly hurt were the abscesses, the dying pains.

“Do you think my teeth will last me the rest of my life,” I once asked a dentist friend of my father’s years ago, betraying my undying loyalty to my battered molar friends. “You will go with them,” she replied in Albanian. To live into old age with one’s own teeth is deeply valued where I come from, as a primal token of being the ultimate survivor. The dentist explained that from all the trauma of deep fillings my teeth had developed an internal coating, which being a literature professor by day, I interpreted as an inner membrane, an impenetrable shell to weather storms. I am not sure how scientifically correct this was, or how accurately I understood, but I took tremendous pride in my survivor molars turned into fortresses against gingivitis and thought our stories paralleled one another.

It is hard to say goodbye to my own abject ruin, but as I get ready to part ways with it, friends have told me their teeth stories in solidarity. One person was a tetracycline baby who lost all her teeth in utero, while another had multiple teeth removed by an octogenarian dentist in order to make room for braces. A different friend is having multiple teeth removed due to connective tissue disease. Some lament the losses and others say that they can no longer afford to be sentimental about teeth. These stories help me soldier on as I come to grips with my loss.

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