The Archaeologist

My mother kept our our teeth
in a small kitchen cupboard
along with nail clippers, glass jars
of rubber bands and used postage stamps.
I don’t remember what I was looking for
when I found them, a loose pile
of bones surrounded by artefacts
from the ‘60s and ‘70s. We marvelled
at the shapes of them, my sister
and I, the baby canines, incisors,
molars and pre-molars, words like
hook of hamate, capitate, the little bones
of the wrist. We could have
excavated them, placed
them one by one, night by night
under our pillows, each
once worth 10 or 20 cents, now
worth 50 or perhaps, one
dollar. But whose
were whose and why were they
not classified, arranged carefully
in a shoe box with little white labels
Sharon Ann Wong, 11.07.71, 
lower right lateral incisor, loose for 3 weeks. 10c. 
or Alison Marie Wong, 25.09.69,
upper left first bi-cuspid, surgery 
by cotton thread & door knob, much loss 
of blood requiring transfusion, A+. 20c.

Alison Wong’s great grandparents came to New Zealand from Zengcheng (Jungseng) county in Guangdong province, China in the late 19th Century. She was born and raised in Hawke’s Bay, but has lived most of her adult life in the Wellington region, now living in Porirua city.

Alison studied mathematics and creative writing at Victoria University, worked in IT, and spent several years in China, initially on a New Zealand-China Student Exchange Scholarship. In 1996 she held a Reader’s Digest-New Zealand Society of Authors Fellowship at the Stout Research Centre and a New Zealand Founders Society Research Award. She was a founder of Porirua’s Poetry Café, and in 2002, was the Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University.

The novel she is writing explores some of the history of the early Chinese in New Zealand. ‘The Archaeologist’ appears in her first book of poems, Cup, published by Steele Roberts.

Wong comments: ‘I wrote this poem remembering years before discovering a pile of baby teeth in a kitchen cupboard of the family home. It had been like entering a time warp, falling back into the realm of our childhood, stumbling upon the small and idiosyncratic hoardings of our mother. The teeth were so tiny, they seemed like baby bones, and they had such lovely names — bicuspid, incisor, canine — an incantation. I felt like an archaeologist sifting through the remains of a familiar and yet lost civilization, excavating our past lives. The family home was sold after my father died so the cupboard and our childhood can never be revisited except by memory and imagination.

‘The poem, at its end, descends somewhat into the ridiculous — a reflection of the sense of humour I share with my sister.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Steele Roberts: Cup
Deep South: One Hundred Pounds
Stout Research Centre seminar: Alison Wong on writing historical fiction from a cross–cultural perspective
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre: online novel extracts
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre: online poems