Reflection: Broken Teeth by Tony Birch

There is a special circle in hell

For whomever it is that invented “sale” stickers

That refuse to peel off. 

Scraping away at the front cover of a book

Becomes an exercise in precision,

Trying not to rip or ruin an elegant design.

I am reduced to surgery:

A paring knife,


Cotton wool,

Eucalyptus oil.

And I pad, scrape, pick, and lift

The fading scab of $9.95

From the delicate matte-finished skin beneath.

 The poems in Broken Teeth span the haunting, the clinical, and the hopeful. To say that Birch is a master of his craft is a polite understatement. He is able to take simple, mundane moments, and look through them to see both the past and the future more clearly. He takes those things that were and are so readily taxonomised by Eurocentric ways of knowing and positions the reader to see the world anew, to take even a small step towards decolonising their perspective. 

Even getting lost in his poems about museums, surgery, and medical history filled me with trepidation, knowing the ways in which First Nations peoples were medicalised and dehumanised.  The ongoing dehumanisation of bodies represented in these poems was discomforting, like sleeping on the ground; too close to the truth to be able to ignore it. 

But then I was lifted away by the humble fantastic that Birch unfurls across the laneways of inner-suburban Melbourne; the gentleness of women, sitting on front porches and singing, the melancholy of a missed beloved expected but unseen in “that laneway/behind the Rainbow Hotel”. Even the menace of the Toe-Cutter speaks to Melbourne’s violent history (which, when that violence is committed by white men, becomes fodder for television) and violent present (where violence by the same men is rendered invisible). Birch weaves together a city, seen, unseen, forgotten and ever-present. This overlap between past and present is most explicit in his poems for and of Beruk (William Barak), which conclude with him and his son singing together on the banks of the Birrang, under the blinking city lights.

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