Against the backdrop of a slowly dying world, Helene Bukowski writes a beautiful and brutal story about living with trauma, the strain of motherhood, and the danger of fearing the unknown.
In the opening lines of Milk Teeth, Helene Bukowski sets the tone for the story to come: “The fog has swallowed up the sea. It stands like a wall, there, where the beach begins. I can’t get used to the sight of the water. I’m always looking for a bank on the opposite side that could reassure me, but there’s nothing but sea and sky. These days, even this line is blurred.” Beautiful, brutal, and eerily accessible, the story of Milk Teeth is one that peels back the layers we build around fear; it lays them bare along tainted waters and dares its readers to move through the fear and into the beyond.
At times, Milk Teeth feels like a dark fairytale, and at times it feels like a mirror, as if Bukowski is revealing how close our own world is to the one that she has invented. While the circumstances surrounding Skalde’s town are hazy—made even more so by the vague pieces of information we learn alongside her from her mother and the other townspeople—it is close enough to our own situation for us to understand what is going on. The language of Milk Teeth is grounded and real, and it pulls in its audience from the very beginning, as the opening of the story follows Skalde’s childhood. We get down in the dirt and weeds with Skalde as she tries to keep their meager garden alive; we bear witness to the harshness and mental illness that plague her mother’s parenting; we learn to see this dying world through her eyes. By the time Skalde transitions to an adult, not even a quarter of the way through the book, we are utterly entangled in her world and her life. And then she finds a child in the woods.
When Skalde finds Meisis, everything changes, and the perspective of the narrative shifts from that of a beleaguered daughter to one of a struggling mother. She becomes determined to protect this child and hide her from the eyes of the people around her—something that becomes more and more difficult. Her relationship with Meisis also reveals the reasoning behind her mother’s harshness, something that Skalde struggles to come to terms with as she finds herself repeating her own mother’s parenting mistakes out of fear for Meisis’ safety. She also struggles with bitterness and resentment towards Edith, as Edith is often kinder to Meisis than she ever was to Skalde. This bitterness begins to put strain on Skalde’s relationship with her daughter. This is a reckoning that a lot of children from broken homes have to deal with—whether they should forgive their parents, whether they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, or how they can break out of the generational cycles of pain. Skalde is on the receiving end of two kinds of generational baggage—as someone who was born and raised in this town but the daughter of an outsider, she inherits both her mother’s fear of their neighbors and their neighbor’s fear of the outside world.
Interspersed throughout the story are bits of Skalde’s poetry that she starts writing as a child. Like the language of the story, they are simple and intense, but their meaning is drenched in implied metaphor. Skalde’s first poem: “I SAW THE BLUE OF THE SKY, IT LOOKED AS IF IT HAD BEEN HOLLOWED OUT, AND I THINK THAT EVENTUALLY THE HOUSES WILL ALSO STAND LIKE SKELETONS” (23). The poems are lovely to read, and they provide a nice transitional flow in between the narration. “WHICH BONDS WOULD REMAIN IF I WERE TO FORGET AN EMBER IN THE STRAW,” Skalde writes as her world dissolves around her, “THE FLAMES WOULD BE SEEN FOR MILES AROUND” (163).
In many ways, Bukowski is telling the story of cycles. Cycles of distrust, cycles of abuse, cycles of fear. Again and again, we see history repeat itself—in the townspeople’s treatment of outsiders, first Edith and then Meisis, and in the ways that Skalde repeats her mother’s parenting mistakes. Fear drives every action in this story, in one way or another, often manifesting in a special kind of fear we all can relate to—fear for the people we love. It is fear that causes first Edith and then Skalde to set such strict rules about the house, to dissolve into shouts and panic when these rules are broken. It is fear that makes the townspeople so hostile towards outsiders.
Milk Teeth tackles so many complex issues that I initially found it difficult to put them into words. Difficult parent relationships, fear of the outsiders, environmental catastrophe—these seem like very different topics. But they are actually intertwined. It is the author’s own fears reflected in the narrative: the fear of repeating a parent’s mistakes, the fear of the ever-looming environmental apocalypse, the fear that all of society could be like the town Skalde grows up in.
The horror of Milk Teeth is that the world it presents is not a distant or detached one. Unlike the worlds of so many dystopian novels, the future that Bukowski paints is one of some far off, imagined society—one that we could see perhaps existing, but that is far too fanciful or contrived to ever really feel threatening. Instead, the world of Milk Teeth is uncomfortably close to home. The threat of an environmental collapse feels closer every day, and the aggressively xenophobic nature of this small, closed off town is not a farfetched fantasy. It brings forth a challenge to the reader: can you really claim you would be any different? If you were cut off from society, living in brutal survival; a generation removed from the world we know—wouldn’t we, too, learn to fear outsiders?
The fear of the unknown is in all of us. It manifests in different ways, but it has been present for all of human history, and it is easily twisted. It is something we all have to face when we try and move towards something better than the life we know. As Skalde writes, “TO LEAVE A FAMILIAR TERRITORY I COULD NAVIGATE BLIND. WHAT LASTS, AND WHAT REMAINS, IF I GO? WHO WILL REMEMBER THE PATH I LEAVE BEHIND?” (215). But so many of the problems in Milk Teeth come from stewing in fear, from staying in the same place with the same mindset. What Bukowski wants both her audience and her characters to understand is that the familiar and comfortable hold their own kind of danger; only by facing the unknown and the difficult, by acknowledging and confronting our fear, can we begin to build a better future. The waters of uncertainty are waiting for us, if we only jump in and search for a better way.
On her dedication page, Cherene Sherrard indicates her poetry collection, Grimoire, is “[f]or the mothers.” I am left with the following question: what makes a mother a “mother?” Is it the nine months of carrying a child in the womb, giving birth, and then raising said child? Or is it simply the act of loving a child, despite not ever meeting them due to gestation or birth complications?
I ask this question because many of the speakers in Grimoire are childless, either due to miscarriages, complications, or stillbirths. Are they included in Sherrard’s dedication to “mothers”? Can they even be considered mothers without living children? These mothers in Grimoire, who have lost their babies, are Black mothers in America, and for many, they have lost their babies due to factors out of their control such as miscarriages and institutionalized racism.