The speakers in Milk Teeth are allusive and elusive, anxious and uncertain: they attempt to diminish their losses by adopting irreverent stances—“insomnia isn’t just a marketing strategy. / Buy the decaffeinated Five-Hour Energy”—or by evoking mythological and theoretical frameworks—“What’s suspicious about a love of birds? / Dissimulation is another word for flock.” Renton’s poems balance metaphysical conceits with underpinning narratives: a cigarette butt, a bottle of wine, a laptop computer, and even a Pepsi commercial are transformed into generative metaphors, revealing scenarios whose conflicts are often situated just beyond the experience of each poem. Take, for example, “Everyday Adjustments,” which catalogues the omens precipitating a relationship’s collapse:
Our choicest cuts are lexical. No one suffers déjà vu by passing
by an oily sink. Effervescence echoes up a plastic bottle.
It’s a wonder we fear the world’s best water. The fridge drones
like a sandstone beach. There’s nothing in the microwave but
cold, burnt kernels on a plate of Pyrex. We’ll eat more, we will
always eat more. Forget this serving. Electric heat is borrowed…
Here, a familiar conceit—the conflation of appetites—is refashioned via novel images and psychic projection: the “drone” of the fridge, “like a sandstone beach,” suggests not only the slow erosion of shared domesticity, but also, through its wordless hum, the couple’s inability to articulate their emotional states; the inedible popcorn kernels are evocative of an unrealized outcome; and from the speaker’s perspective, even the plastic bottle’s effervescence “echoes” with an unfillable emptiness, while the description’s synaesthesia parallels the confusion of appetites. As “Everyday Adjustments” demonstrates, Renton’s verse is clever and polished: consider the slant-rhyme between “bottled, “drones,” and “borrowed,” as well as the astute, but unostentatious, lineation. And it’s hard not to admire the verve of lines like “cold burnt kernels on a plate of Pyrex” that crackle with plosives and spondaic insistence. Admittedly, the poem’s central conceit risks affectation, but its sonic dexterity and the brief, punning statements interspersed throughout—such as “Our choicest cuts are lexical” and “Forget this serving”— memorably propel “Everyday Adjustments” along to its wistful end, hinting at the speaker’s pain.
A different sort of formal acuity is on display in the poem “Low Fidelity.” Heavily-enjambed and stichic, the poem scans quickly, its rhymes piling atop each other as its anaphoric phrases skip between ideas, images, and sounds like a broken record, underscoring the title’s duality:
There’s no one
on the phone
Katy doesn’t know.
Katy doesn’t know.
how the spider
survives the winter.
Katy didn’t listen
to my confession.
Katy bought matches
but didn’t burn
her diary. Katy
While the repetitions and rhymes of “Low Fidelity” strikingly depict romantic betrayal, occasionally, the emotional resonance of the poems in Milk Teeth seem muted by their speakers’ circuitous intellects, their predilection for epigraphs (half the poems in the chapbook carry one), and their ironic distance. Renton’s work often slyly incorporates nods to Lacan and Derrida (who would have thought Derridean Différance could be evoked through a double entendre laden description of a swingers’ party?), and at points, the poems function in a near-satirical vein, as if Renton were channelling a cognitive lineage extending from Pope to Larkin (“Epistle to Pluto” manages to rhyme “condom,” “problem,” and “that Trojan’s column” in quick succession). But when Renton’s speakers let down their guard to reveal what’s at stake, their voices are undeniably poignant. Particularly moving is Renton’s villanelle, “Sundowning,” in which the speaker mourns a mother’s Alzheimer’s. Here, the poem’s epigraph simply explicates the title: “Sundowning” is a condition in which the cognitively impaired and the elderly “become disoriented at the end of the day.” The poem’s first three stanzas:
At night, it’s not a lie to say there never was a sun.
So, if she finds a chocolate, say it’s Easter.
And if she says it’s ’63, agree we’re in Verdun.
Despite her wind-torn body, she’ll start acting 21.
You’ll get to meet again if you’re a stranger.
At night, it’s not a lie to say, there never was a sun.
When ocean water fills the beach, then we haven’t got one.
When fog makes land, there isn’t any water.
So if she says it’s ’63, agree we’re in Verdun.
The plainspoken lines, often slowed by caesura, are imbued with emotional heft by the villanelle’s refrains. Like Bishop’s “One Art,” John Hollander’s “By the Sound” or Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Renton’s poem namechecks the latter in its coda) the obsessiveness of the form, its circular resistance to epiphany, are essential to the poem’s success, enacting a mind both stranded in and displaced from time—a mind inexorably, tragically, unravelling. Accordingly, the poem’s iambic pulse further emphasizes the temporal aspects of the speaker’s and the mother’s experience, each foot suggesting the tick tock of a clock—the expansion and contraction of a literal and metaphorical night. The considered complementarity of structure and subject in “Sundowning,” the last of the chapbook’s fifteen poems, attests to Renton’s skill and exemplifies the thought and heart that inform this compelling debut.
Michael Prior‘s poems have appeared in numerous journals across North America and the UK. A past winner of Grain‘s Short Grain Contest (2014), The Walrus‘s Poetry Prize (2014), and Matrix Magazine’s Lit POP Award (2015), Michael’s first book of poems, Model Disciple was published in 2016 by Véhicule Press.
SINK YOUR TEETH INTO ARC!