19 pages 38 minutes read

Ross Gay

A Small Needful Fact

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


“A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay is a single-sentence poem that begins with the titular fact: Eric Garner did some work in the Parks and Recreation Horticultural Department. This fact is “needful,” in part, because it is largely unknown; Garner is overwhelmingly associated not with his life’s work but with his murder. Garner was an unarmed Black man who was accused of selling individual cigarettes without charging taxes, then choked to death by a New York City police officer. Following his death in July of 2014, Garner’s last words—“I can’t breathe”—quickly became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Garner was, however, much more than the tragic circumstances of his death. “A Small Needful Fact” focuses on one “small” fact about Garner’s life—that he worked for the Parks Department—but the implication is there are many other important facts about Garner that the focus on his death obscures.

As a single-sentence poem, “A Small Needful Fact” is the expression of a single, continuous thought. As a poem of only 15 short lines, it is also brief. Part ode and part elegy, the poem both celebrates Garner’s life and mourns that his life was cut short.

Poet Biography

Gay is both a poet and a gardener, and these identities come together in “A Small Needful Fact,” a poem that is attentive to how plants are sown into the soil, how they grow, and how they support other lifeforms.

Gay was born in Ohio. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Lafayette College, a Master of Arts from Sarah Lawrence, and a doctorate from Temple University. With Aimee Nezhukumatathil, he co-authored a chapbook about gardening, Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardeners. Gay published his first full-length collection of poetry, Against Which, in 2006. Gay’s fourth full-length book of poetry, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, won two prestigious awards: the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. This book was also a finalist for two more prestigious awards: the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and the Balcones Poetry Prize. It was a nominee for the NAACP Image Award.

Shortly after this success, Gay embarked on a project where he daily wrote down something that delighted him. After a year, he collected some of this writing into a book of essays, The Book of Delights (). Gay also published another full-length book of poetry, Be Holding, in 2020.

As of 2021, Gay is a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington and at work on a “book-length essay about gardens, land, race, nation and the imagination, called This Black Earth (“Core Faculty: Ross Gay.” English.indiana.edu).

Poem Text

Gay, Ross. “A Small Needful Fact.” 2015. Poets.org.


“A Small Needful Fact” begins with the eponymous fact:

[…] Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department (Lines 1-3).

This “fact” is a simple one, but a summary of the poem requires an understanding of its context. Garner was an unarmed Black man who was killed by the police. On July 17, 2014, Garner was standing on a Staten Island sidewalk, and two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers approached him and accused him of selling individual cigarettes without charging taxes. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck, placing Garner in a chokehold, a tactic forbidden by NYPD rules. Pantaleo squeezed the life out of Garner while Garner repeatedly pleaded for breath. Standing nearby, a friend of Garner’s recorded the killing on his cell phone and shared the video. Garner’s last words—“I can’t breathe”—quickly became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.

This short poem focuses not on Garner’s death, but on one “small” fact about his life: Garner worked for the Parks Department. In Lines 4-7, the poem imagines Garner at this job gardening:

perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants […] (Line 4-7)

The speaker repeatedly couches this imagining in the qualifications “perhaps” (Line 4, 5) and “in all likelihood” (Line 5), emphasizing that although this scenario is very likely, details of Garner’s life were lost when he was killed by the police.

In Lines 8-15, the speaker imagines the plants Garner put into the soil growing. Garner is gone, but these plants “continue / to do what such plants do” (Lines 9-10). The plants Garner sowed into the earth “house / and feed small and necessary creatures” (Line 10-11). They’re also “pleasant to touch and smell” (Line 12). Finally, through the process of photosynthesis, these plants change sunlight into oxygen, “making it easier / for us to breathe” (Line 14-15).