Back Left-Molar by Nkosi Nkululeko New York City Youth Poet Laureate

A dentist told me that I needed a root canal.
The last one dug out too much of the bone
when cleaning the back molar & now there’s
a destroyed country on the side of my face,

ruined cities, split marble walls where death
is an occasional activity. Through the streets
where the jawline rests, I heard a boy’s knuckle
crack against the face of another boy who

resembled me so much when submitting to
agony, that my gums began to swell. It’s funny
how pain makes the body remember things,
like how years ago, the left side of my face

was flung into a dune of snow, flakes stinging
the flesh until the black faded, it, now a bright
brown. The blood could almost be seen crawling
through the windows of the cheek, looking out

into the world as if to want to escape the prison
of this body, but the tooth needs containment,
needs a lack of air for the thin blood to breathe,
needs the baton of a toothbrush to rattle against

the cages of the mouth at night to put the teeth
to rest and maybe that’s the meaning of a gov-
ernment in the mouth; to undergo an endless
slumber as we decay into a quiet death, the kind

you don’t hear until it is gone without the music.
The nerve falls on its knees as a mother would,
praying for her son to return to the same body
that she birthed him with, with all 32 shimmering,

intact teeth and this may be only the metaphor for
a cavity, how the son only comes back incomplete,
as only a black substance, blossoming in the open,
wide space of the tooth, like coal, the suffix of fire.

His gums, of course, burning with the molar, hung
high in the back of the mouth as if attached to a cross
in the deep south, steadied, solemn and grief-made,
tethered to the roof of the mouth. I wonder if the tooth

died with the rest of his body. A lynch mob
patrols the back molar, taking a snapshot or two,
recording how death makes even the whitest parts
of us perish into a black silence. And that silence

rots us from the inside out with another body with-
in us, made of canines, crawling through the mouth
and this is called: a toothache; an event that often
causes a wanting of death, like my friend who wanted

to only commit to suicide. Maybe she wanted to return
as the tooth, decided to want to die again but instead,
by consuming something that also owns teeth: an excess
of glucose, that scalpels the enamel inside of the bone

and for that, I think we give ourselves, our own death.
For I know it well, to unsheathe myself from my self, to be
permitted to join a circle of boys who’s teeth was pure, white
and endlessly beautiful, eating Haagen-Dazs, Little Debbie’s,

and all of the sin-filled delicacies, grazing our mouths
with the sugar and syrup caught in our laps. This is how
it looks; to eat the same thing that means to kill you. How
could I have not known how silent death walks up on us,

sometimes sneaking through the back tooth, excavating the bone so deep with nothing inside
of it except for a void that the body can fit in easily, waiting for the dentist to dig you out.

Sofia Snow