We’re reading Emily Dickinson now, some of her greatest hits (she had tons). Emily was a poet from the 19th century, from Massachusetts, who wrote like, I don’t know, ten billion poems and stuffed them in drawers, cabinets, under her bed; I picture her entire house wallpapered in them. Only a handful were published in her lifetime.
She can be a hard nut to crack—her poems seem simple, sometimes even a little “soft.” Don’t let that style fool you. Once you read deep into her words, well, it can get a little. . .scary. I imagine her sitting next to me, grinning like a cat as she watches me writhe in her exquisite, disturbing imagery.
Let’s just take one of her famous lines, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—“ That’s the beginning of one of her most anthologized poems.
Have you ever wondered, when you’re out in a park, or you’ve left the window open, why flies buzz around your body, especially your head? It’s because you’re covered in dead skin cells, oil, fatty tissue and salt that are all delicious to flies. They keep circling around us like we’re a Denny’s buffet.
When you’re alive, of course, you swat them away and get ticked off at your roommate for leaving the window open. But, when you’re dead, those critters are on you in a New York-second. They can smell a dog’s body from three miles away. When they reach a cadaver, the females nest and deposit thousands of eggs into the nostrils, ear canals, anus, mouth, the edge of the eyes. She doesn’t have teeth, so she vomits an enzyme-infused saliva that melts the flesh, which she sucks up into her vacuum cleaner throat.
A fly isn’t the only reason we decompose; we rot from the inside. The cecum, which joins together the small and large intestines and keeps the bacteria in balance, at death, says “Party’s over!” and dumps all that shit into the system. But, just outside, the flies are the stars of our disintegration.
So, get this thought in your head nice & deep: when a fly’s buzzing around you, he’s checking out your dead parts—which you have on you, all the time. We’re coated in the waste that our bodies release in its constant cleaning out of the system. We’re bathed in dead Us.
Let’s say I’m having a nice old-man-on-his-deathbed deaths, one of those lovely moments when the whole family’s gathered around, saying their goodbyes. A fly buzzes in, having smelled me all the way from Sherman Oaks (I live in Van Nuys, a good two miles). I’m not dead yet. I can’t move my arms, can’t swat. While everybody’s crying over me (they damned well better be), the fly sneaks into my ear, takes in a deep breath of decaying Me, spits up its enzyme tincture, sucks melted Me in a little, then coats my inner ear with about one hundred fifty eggs.
So, it is very, very possible that I’ll hear a fly buzz when I die. And, it might be the last thing I hear.
Now read the poem. See how it hits you. Work through the confusion that you might have, the questions of “What’s she saying? What’s this mean?” Hang in there. Search the poem, each word, its placement, the turns of phrases, the rhymes. It just might. . .well, I’m not going to presume what a deep reading of this poem will do to you; that’s up to you.
PS: The following letters will address how different poets respond to death: acceptance, fear, or Outright Defiance. Both spiritual and secular—poets have traveled these brutal roads with purpose; and I believe we, their readers, are part of that purpose.
References: A Fly For the Prosecution by M. Lee Goff; Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach (unfortunate last name); Forensic Pathology, Second Edition by Vincent J. DiMaio and Dominick DiMaio.