Poet-dentist finds encouragement, friendship and ‘transcendent beauty’ on Shelter Island

I soon discovered a great deal of magic on my Island home. 

Many people sought me out because I was a poet, not just the local dentist. I was getting well known off Shelter Island and among the large community of artists who lived on the East End. 

I was getting close to a growing number of artists here of every stripe who were sources of encouragement and consolation for me. Among them were August Mosca, Luiz Coehlo and Bob Markell, all of whom became cherished friends. One was a man from Ram Island named Harold Schonberg. Harold is still, all these years after his death, considered the father of classical music critics. Another was Nik Cohn, known as the “The Father of Rock Critics.” And one was the author and journalist Robert Hughes, considered the most important art critic in the world. All of them had homes on Shelter Island. 

But many of the people who nourished me with their kindness and stories were baymen and carpenters, innkeepers and retired people with great life stories. I might have been the last dentist on Long Island to work entirely on his own, and was able to make a schedule so I could spend as much time talking to people as I did dealing with their teeth. 

I’ve long bragged about the day I had a man named Phil Reilly in my chair. We were so enjoying the four hours we spent talking that I never got to do anything on his teeth.  

One of the people I became close to was an odd and fascinating older woman named Marnie Hutchinson. Marnie made her living writing all the ad copy for the many companies of Estee Lauder. She also let me know she’d been given to visions a few times in her life and that they all came true. One day, just a few years into my time in practice, she let me know she’d had a vision of a huge celebration of me as a poet, a parade in town, and people looking at my office and remarking that was the place where the poet-dentist of Shelter Island once worked. I was charmed and then forgot about it. She didn’t live long enough to see that; maybe it had come true.

My life as a poet continued to grow and expand and the people I cared for on Shelter Island gave me the room I needed to be two things at once. They also gave me inspiration, as did the transcendent beauty of the Island, the place I’d come to see as my true home. 

In 2005, I was named the second-ever Poet Laureate of Suffolk County. Stories followed in The New York Times, Newsday, and all the weekly Long Island papers. Public television came out to film a profile of me for a program that featured eight prominent New York artists. I was invited to read all over Long Island and New York City, along with many places in Europe. The good people of the Island were patient and supportive. I was having people approach me at readings, asking if it was true I was a dentist. 

They also gave me inspiration, as did the transcendent beauty of the Island, the place I’d come to see as my true home

Daniel Thomas Moran

By the early 2000s my body was beginning to fail me. Dentistry exacted its toll; I was living with constant pain. My hands hurt so much it was hard to hold a newspaper to read. I tried to do what I could to keep going because there were many people counting on me. 

In 2008, I was offered a position as clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Dental Medicine and realized my time on the Island was done. I was both sad and hopeful. It took very little time before I realized that all of the matters of my life had seemingly prepared me to become a teacher. I was 52. I took solace knowing I’d be succeeded by Frank Kestler, a highly competent dentist who loved Shelter Island as much as I did.

After just two years teaching, I was given the extraordinary honor by the dean and the graduating class of 2011 to deliver the commencement address. That year and the next I received two national awards for Excellence in Clinical Instruction. As will be fully understood by anyone who teaches at a college or university, by the end of five years I was completely spent and in 2013 I resigned. 

As for my poetry career, it has continued nicely. I’ve had 14 published collections and some 400 of my poems have appeared in journals in 20 different countries. The newest collection comes as a result of a student at The University of Bucharest translating 60 of my poems into Romanian and writing a critical analysis for his Masters thesis. 

My two prior collections were published in Ireland, the place my Irish forebears left in the late 1800s. My great-grandfather, Thomas Moran, came here from County Mayo in 1888 with nothing but a hammer. 

My patients would often ask me about that hammer, which hung prominently on the wall beside my desk. Thomas Moran had worked hard and succeeded, but he never learned to read or write. I wonder what he would have said about having a great-grandson who became a doctor, and a professor, and who had books of his poems published in Ireland. 

And I often wonder about the many, many people on the Island whom I cherished for their friendship and wisdom, friends who died many years ago. They were all part of my story and I often wonder if it could have happened any other way. 

That might deserve a poem.