A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay

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.

10 thoughts on “A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay

  1. Thank you so much for this heartfelt poem Jan. As you say, “it’s almost impossible to talk about and impossible not to talk about”. It’s so thoughtful and respectful in expressing and honouring this man’s humanity and life and the difference between giving life and taking life. I would like to share this with a few friends who I know would very much appreciate it if that’s all right with you. I really appreciate the poems you share and your very insighful commentaries on them.


  2. Yes, please do share this poem Sandra. There is so little we can do to express our outrage and our sorrow but a poem can do both. Thank you for your response, much appreciated, xoxoxo


  3. I read this poem and felt badly that I didn’t, at first, remember this particular incident of police brutality. So I googled it and it came back – except that I truly did not recall the man’s name – Eric Garner. So I read his bio and I will not forget his name again. The NYPD officer who killed him was not held accountable in any way – until he was fired last year – five years later. I sat up last night watching the protests and feeling so sad and so mad that things have grown no better after all these years, and that instead, in many ways they feel much worse. There is a tenderness in this poem and I am also particularly touched by your comments. Both which convey Eric Garner’s humanity. He becomes “…a real person, like you, like me….” The contrast between “I can’t breathe” and “…converting sunlight into food, like making it easier for us to breathe.” is a powerful one. Thank you Jan. ❤️💫


    • dear Lisa, I think we are all feeling sad and mad and it is the humanity of this poem which captured my attention and which I wanted to share. Breathe well. xoxoxox


  4. Oh Jan, that is so tragic and beautiful at the same time. Thank you for the reminder that poetry is not just a “nice” thing, like the dessert after a meal but that it has the power to break your heart in its relevance. What an amazing thing.


  5. Dear Jan: what a sensitive post here, with just this restrained and telling poem. I so appreciate your wisdom, calling us to bear witness. Love, Mary Lou


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