Gabriela Bourke reviews Milk Teeth by Rae White
by Rae White
ISBN: 978 0 7022 6016 2
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Rae White might be categorised as emerging, but their success as a poet is established. Winner of the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry, placing second in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize for their poem ‘what even r u?’ and reviewed favourably in Westerly and Books and Publishing among many others, White’s reputation as a poet continues to ascend.
White’s first poetry collection Milk Teeth has been described as ‘an assured and original debut from a powerful new voice in Australian poetry’ (Culver, 2018). It’s interesting to me that White has chosen to precede their collection with a few lines from another poem, Alex Gallagher’s ‘vague body’, an excerpt which concludes ‘I’m tired of being broken by language/when it is the only safe place I’ve ever known.’ (Gallagher, 2017). This reference situates White’s collection in a tradition of non-binary poetry and at the same time indicates a preoccupation of the collection: that is, the way in which language fails to authentically represent transgender people. These lines provide a lens through which we can begin to approach White’s own poetry, which reconfigures modes of representation by offering an always-vivid, sometimes confronting series of poems which may cause discomfort, but in doing so deftly blast apart cisnormative understandings of gender and identity.
The first of White’s poems, ‘Mother’s Milk’, narrates a person taking a baby tooth from a box under a bed and eating it. The relish with which the tooth is stolen and the rapture with which it is swallowed is viscerally discomforting. ‘I roll it leisurely/with tongue, let it clink/like ice cubes in empty/glass. I swallow/feel it scrape & chafe/lodge in my throat.’ (3). The tooth then sets up residence in the narrator’s throat, resulting in ‘crackle quartz jutting from my neck./It glimmers & hums, my beautiful/crystalline baby/the only jewellery/I’ll ever wear.’ (4) This bodily transformation elicits a pain response from the reader as the molar scrapes and chafes and lodges, whereas the way in which the tooth takes up residence in not just a foreign place, the throat, but a foreign body altogether poses a challenge to the reader. Are we to assume the eating of the molar is a signifier for something else? Or did the narrator really eat the tooth? What does it mean, to eat the tooth? The slippage between the signifier and the signified – the tooth, signifying what – invites a poststructuralist reading for later poems, and decentres the role of language in delineating meaning. White takes a medium with which we are familiar, perhaps with which we even consider ourselves expert, and starts using it in a way unknown to us. In this way we have to be open to learning the language of the poet, to being open to understanding the language as they intend it, rather than as we have known it to be.
The next poem, ‘ambulance symptoms’, offers a brief reprieve with the soothing assonance of the first stanza: ‘july was flushed with winter/ promise: white water breezes/ & steeples of rain.’(5) Closer examination though reveals again that tendency toward brutal imagery: ‘my scarf/was a suspect in your/strangling.’ (5) In ‘Sabbatical’, the narrator of the poem goes fishing and, after hours of waiting, reels in the ‘putrid remains’ of a dead cat, ‘clumps of purple/fur clinging to pitted flesh. She’s not good/for eating.’(16) These poems assail the reader with the grotesque, in the form of violent death, rotting animal bodies or the consumption (or consideration of consumption) of something considered non-consumable. ‘Sabbatical’ concludes with the cat nudged back into the water with ‘…the toe of my pumps… (16); ‘go and gone follows’, concluding so similarly as to be almost identical, as the narrator encounters the dead body of a cormorant and uses the toe of their trainer to push the body into a lake (17). In an interview for Messenger’s Booker, White says, ‘I try to bring … conflicting duality … to my work: to engage the reader through casually unsettling their expectations, asking the reader why they might find something unsettling and why.’ (Messenger’s Booker, 2018)
We are unsettled by the unusual, by the taboo, by people, places and things with whom or which we are not familiar. The sequencing of White’s collection means that by the time we reach poems that are explicit in their commentary on the everyday life and struggles of a non-binary person, we can proceed with an openness, or perhaps willingness that we may have lacked upon first picking up the book. The poem ‘hook-up’ is forthright, unambiguous and unashamed.
picture us spooning
dripping stink and
spittle. And six
months from now:
my vulva warm
untouched, my mouth dank and tacky. Your musty shirt
puckered on my floor.
In an article for The Guardian, Cat Fitzpatrick said
‘[Works by non-binary authors] go beyond the clichéd trans narrative which cisgender network executives and publishers have decided that “general audiences” want. As a result, they have much more to say, not just to trans people, but to everyone. They tell richer and stranger stories, ask deeper questions about gender, identity and injustice, and are written with the kind of brio, inventiveness and excitement that comes from desperately needing to say the things they are finally finding a way to write down.’ (Fitzpatrick, 2015)
The strangeness and inventiveness of White’s poems build and transform as the reader continues through the journey of the collection, so that by the final poem, ‘Feed your friends’, the funeral wake described opens itself to a range of interpretations, from the literal to the figurative.
It’s always reassuring to see a millennial writer achieving the kind of success White is currently enjoying, in the culture of funding cuts and the disparagement of creativity in which we now find ourselves. White’s poetry is fresh and defiant, and underlines the importance of writing and publishing in returning the space to communities who have previously been silenced.
1. Alison Gallagher, Parenthetical Bodies Subbed In, 2017
2. Tony Messenger interviews Rae White https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2018/09/17/milk-teeth-rae-white-plus-bonus-poet-interview/
3. Cat Fitzpatrick, ‘Beyond the cliches: how the trans poetry community is finding its voice’ The Guardian, 25 November, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/25/trans-poetry-community-literature-writers (Accessed 14 February 2020)
GABRIELA BOURKE is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Gabriela is most interested in fictional representations of animal and human trauma, and the ways in which these intersect. Her work appears in Hermes and Southerly.