White, Rae. Milk Teeth. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2018. RRP $24.95. 104pp. ISBN: 9780702260162
For 16 years, the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript has encouraged emerging poets throughout Queensland by awarding them with a publishing contract and monetary prize, thus introducing their work to a wide audience of poetry lovers and helping to establish their literary career on a solid foundation with the support of like-minded individuals. Past winners have included the likes of David Stavanger, Krissy Kneen and Sarah Holland-Batt.
In 2017, non-binary poet Rae White—whose work has been previously published in Cordite Poetry Review, Seizure and Meanjin Quarterly—took home the prize, with their debut poetry anthology Milk Teeth being launched at Queensland Poetry Festival just a few months ago.
Winning such a prestigious accolade is no mean feat, so it comes as no surprise that critics and fans alike have widely praised Milk Teeth and White. Zenobia Frost stated, “These are poems that make you look over your shoulder, more than once.” while Books+Publishing called it “an original debut from a powerful new voice in Australian poetry.”
I went into reading Milk Teeth blind, unaware of White’s previous work, beyond the fact that this book had won the Thomas Shapcott Prize. With other authors and books, this lack of information may be considered a hinderance, but in this case, I think it was a positive as I was able to approach the poems with no preconceived notions or even expectations.
Milk Teeth is, honestly, unlike anything else I have read. Poetry is, understandably quite a subjective genre, but with all the diversity in today’s literary landscape in terms of theme, form is the one thing that most poets tend to agree on.
White’s poetry, however, is so experimental that it turns that so-called ‘unbroken rule’ on its head. While most of the work featured in this collection does indeed follow what is considered more of a standard format, there are a number of poems that contradict it, the most obvious of which being ‘<title>genderoptions</title>’, a snippet of which features below.
<optionvalue= “biological”> MALE </option>
<option= “TRUE”> female </option>
<option= “other”> 404 404</not-an-option>
>>Gender not found<< (26)
While at first glance, this may just seem to be a bunch of formatting codes only those familiar with typesetting and computer programming will understand, a more in-depth read will reveal the quirky way in which it plays with the technology’s terminology to question how society tends to view gender as a choice of two: either male or female.
It’s confronting and unusual to find such techniques used in a volume of poetry, but it’s perhaps this experimentation to which Frost was referring to when she said White’s work made her look twice. This may not be my favourite of the poems included in Milk Teeth, but it is certainly one that made me sit up and take notice.
White’s non-conformity to genre, labels and even form or shape is something which makes this poetry collection stand out from others, rather than one poem or selection of poems. In this compilation, they give a voice to the marginalised or misunderstood, creating a space in which everything and everyone—from people to plants, and animals—is heard.
That said, Milk Teeth is not without those literary gems of style and form that are of a more traditional poetry form, and it is these, for me, that are highlights of the collection. Their unusual and honest, yet with a raw quality I haven’t seen before.
‘Ambulance symptoms’ is just one of these.
july was flushed with winter
promise: white water breezes
& steeples of rain.
as we layered holiday
sweaters. My scarf
was a suspect in your strangling.
your neck crimson-blotched
marzipan / the hospital hammocked
in caution tape / gift baskets
unconscious on the floor (4)
Another favourite comes in ‘the kookaburra’s crypt’, simply for White’s description and more obvious lyrical value.
into sun-bleached brick
to chip at glitch
in apartment block
wall: the modest hole
where I keep skink
carcass & secrets secrets that profit
from shadows &
dust of decaying
wasp nests secrets I
collect & lament
& bury (74)
Admittedly, this is probably not the collection to read if you are looking for something light. While playful in terms of language and form, White’s work is probably one of the heaviest collections I have read when it comes to theme. It’s hard hitting, and stark in its honesty. But it’s meant to be.
The topics which White covers within this collection are, as others have previously noted, all the more accessible for Milk Teeth’s publication. Through it, readers will, perhaps, have a better understanding of how to treat those around them and a greater acceptance of those who are different. That, in itself, makes White’s debut collection necessary reading.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.