One year and three days ago, Staten Island man Eric Garner told officers “I can’t breathe” 11 times while in a chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo — his last words.
These words and the protests that followed Garner’s death are the backdrop for “A Small Needful Fact,” a poem by Indiana University professor and poet Ross Gay. The poem drew a wide audience online, garnering thousands of shares on Facebook and Twitter. Gay, whose book “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press this year, said the poem was based on a fact about Garner that he read in an obituary.
Much of the press surrounding Garner has focused on the violence of his death, while the poem puts a needed spotlight on his life, Gay said. “What that poem, I think, is trying to do is to say, there’s this beautiful life, which is both the sorrow and the thing that needs to be loved,” he said.
A Small Needful Fact
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.
Ross Gay is a poet, professor at Indiana University and author of the collection “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.”