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A Certain Pain

“I speak because I am shattered”
—Louise Gluck

I had no one, during quarantine, to touch 
my teeth’s chipped glyphs, unnerved 

serrations migrating on the jaw. I nearly longed for 
fingers to leave their prints on my cavities, 
turning the air I breathed to blades. My memory sharpened 

after seeing the dentists 3 months too late for one 
of many problems they knew I couldn’t afford. 

My numerous damages are nocturnal. They sleep with me, 
holding my face like a mask as I mistake poison 
throbbing in my cheek for a heart in my mouth; 
tongue half numb, skull littered with pink slips.

“Your insurance doesn’t cover this,”— Fluorescent light 
flooding my lake-wide mouth, a red buoy 
bobbing near the throat drowned in water, mist, 
the high-pitched cry metal instruments made.

Now the sound follows me inside 

my head, 
echoes of phantom music. Tinnitus, it’s named, interrupting 
silences gifted when I walk on a vacant Harlem street. 

“Don’t spend the money” I’d say to my mother, 
naïve to think I could bear living
             with my mouth’s irreparability. 

It’s not her fault I’ve had 8 fillings and an extraction, 
but when she carries that guilt it’s enough 
             material for my unwarranted revenge; 

slipping my tongue              in the hole              in my mouth— 
regret discolors              contentment              like a tooth’s 
composite,              becoming a crown
memory wears to brace              the bone’s decaying animal.
             No,              I meant              enamel

Nkosi Nkululeko

Nkosi Nkululeko is the recipient of fellowships from Poets House and Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. He is the winner of Michigan Quarterly Review’s Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets 2018. His poetry can be found in Callaloo, The Offing, Adroit Journal, Ploughshares, and he is anthologized in Bettering American Poetry (Bettering Books, 2019), The Best American Poetry (Scribner, 2018) and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2020). Nkosi Nkululeko lives in Harlem, New York.