I heard a Fly buzz

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” is one of the mentor texts in Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s anthology Sleeping on the Wing. I love the anthology and often use it to pique my students’ interest in reading and writing poetry. It’s a new way of looking at poetry for many students. The poems are interesting, the prompts intriguing; I often write from them myself as I teach.

Normally, I would pause here to quote the prompt that I’m thinking of, but today I can’t because my book is in the school, and the school is closed because of the Covid19 pandemic. I’m at home, teaching without most of my books. We’re making do.

Dickinson’s poem begins like this:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –


And the prompt says something like “write a poem where you intentionally set a very big thing next to a very small thing” and it says something like “consider capitalizing some words and using short phrases and dashes.”

I can’t stop thinking about this – the giant thing: death – and the small, everyday thing: the fly. I can’t stop thinking about how often even the most important moments get all wrapped up with the mundane, even the annoying. I feel this intensely as I continue to live a pandemic-normal existence in Canada, watching from a distance as my country, my home, seems to be ripping itself apart. To use another literary reference, I am, like Nick in The Great Gatsby (one of the texts my students have chosen to read) “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

I am repelled by the way President Trump is behaving, how he is inciting increased violence and calling for violence against Americans. I should no longer be shocked by his abhorrent behaviour, but I am. I am repelled by the actions of some police officers, by extremists who take advantage of protests to foment increased discord.

I am even more repelled by the history that has brought us to this moment – though my revulsion itself is a privilege because it implies that I see this racism, this horrible foundation, as something outside myself. I can be repelled because I do not experience racism against me. I can look at this from the outside in not only because I’m in Canada, but also because I am white.

I *am* white and I am in Canada, so despite the pit in my stomach, I am dealing with every day things: the cats want to their food, the children have school work, the bills must be paid. The persistent buzz of every day of life interposes between me and this larger moment. And I can’t ignore it. Thus it is, with rueful gratitude to Dickinson, who understood that the sublime and the mundane are never entirely separate, I offer this:

I mark Essays – as they Protest
As their Voices plead for Air –
Their Silence – it surrounds me –
As I comb – my youngest’s hair

Police have turned on protesters –
Though Some strive to protect –
We all breathe in the tear gas
Of a President – unchecked

Our racism goes back – Centuries
Though now – the White man cries –
“Not me! I’m anti-racist!”
Without Action – it’s a lie.

And here I sit – in Canada –
My White skin – lets me choose –
How much I want to be involved
I sit – and watch the News.

Here’s Dickinson’s whole poem:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Emily Dickinson

6 thoughts on “I heard a Fly buzz

  1. You’ve captured so much of how many of us are feeling. To watch what’s happening as a neighbor to the North must be cut-wrenching. A few college friends live abroad and truly cannot fathom what’s happening here right now.

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  2. very powerful, thanks helps me understand some of my dilemma

    On Tue, Jun 2, 2020 at 9:38 PM Persistence and Pedagogy wrote:

    > Amanda Potts posted: ” Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I > died -” is one of the mentor texts in Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s > anthology Sleeping on the Wing. I love the anthology and often use it to > pique my students’ interest in reading and writing poetry. ” >

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  3. “Without action–it’s a lie”–very powerful line. There are so many vital actions we can all take right now, so I hope that people won’t feel stuck. Especially as teachers we can immediately begin to take action within our teaching space–with our curriculum and pedagogy, with learning about school policies that are racist (starting with dress code and suspension policies) and then advocating to end them. I love how your piece juxtaposes “the sublime and the mundane.” It’s one of the most interesting things to me about the particular historical moment we’re living in. Absolute nonstop crisis. And all of the other daily tasks also still need tending to. Also, thank you for the book recommendation. Just ordered!

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  4. What a powerful entry. Our president is unchecked, and it’s terrifying. I appreciate the way you juxtaposed the experience of our ordinary days with the overwhelming events that surround us.

    Like

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