Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
A Small Needful Fact
After all the news, the facts – truth and untruth, it takes a poet to tenderly place such horror, such outrage into a story-image that people can digest and remember and not turn away from. As you will know, Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York 6 years ago; this poem was published the following year. Many have been killed since but the latest murder of George Floyd, echoing Garner’s phrase “I can’t breathe”, sadly shows how little has changed.
What I appreciate about Gay’s approach to this almost impossible-to-talk-about subject (and impossible not to talk about), is that he speaks of the time before, of Garner’s work as a gardener for the city. The repetition of perhaps, and in all likelihood, shows that he is imagining what this man’s life may have been – a real person, like you, like me. Plants which he put gently into the earth and which most likely continue to grow and continue to do what such plants do. All the necessary, important and pleasant things they do, like making it easier / for us to breathe.
A man helping plants grow to create oxygen so that we can breathe more easily. A man whose own oxygen was taken away from him so that he could not breathe – six years ago, last week. This is such a potent image that, to me, says so much more than ‘he was killed’ or even that ‘he was murdered’. The contrast between creating plant life and taking away human life is excruciatingly painful and it is this poet’s voice which conveys all this so memorably. A small needful fact that may make it harder for us to breathe.