In the saltwater aquarium at the pain clinic
lives a yellow tang
who chews the minutes in its cheeks
while we await our unguents and anesthesias.
The big gods offer us this little god
before the turning of the locks
in their Formica cabinets
in the rooms of our interrogation.
We have otherwise been offered magazines
with movie stars whose shininess
diminishes as the pages lose
their crispness as they turn.
But the fish is undiminishing, its face
like the death mask of a pharaoh
which remains while the mortal face
gets disassembled by the microbes of the tomb.
And because our pain is ancient,
we too will formalize our rituals with blood
leaking out around the needle
when the big gods try but fail
to find the bandit vein. It shrivels when pricked,
and they’ll say I’ve lost it
and prick and prick until the trouble’s brought
to the pale side of the other elbow
from which I wrench my head away—
but Pharaoh you do not turn away.
You watch us hump past with our walkers
with the tennis balls on their hind legs,
your sideways black eye on our going
down the corridor to be caressed
by the hand with the knife and the hand with the balm
when we are called out by our names.