When Emily Dickinson created “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – ” she gave readers a conundrum – how to reconcile somber death with an exuberant fly. Dilemmas and riddles abound in Dickinson’s work so that part is no surprise. Humor is the wonderful and crucial element.

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 –

With the beginning stanza, I have a picture. Not calmness, but “like the Stillness in the Air -/ Between the Heaves of Storm – ”, a foreboding quiet. Everything in my life is suspended: conversation; loved ones, even thoughts of them; shopping; striving for excellence.  I am waiting; having said goodbye to all.

Suddenly, in starkest contrast, a buzzing fly, the uncontrollable and unpredictable third party, insinuates itself to mediate between me and immortality.

To reiterate the control that the vast unknown has on me and others, “Breaths were gathering firm”, the second stanza goes a step further than bleak resignation, to provide a villain. That other interloper, “King” Death, the one I can foresee, predict. Custom says death is the perfect and unpredictable, if inevitable, foil to life.

In this poem it is life’s unpredictability and exuberance, dramatized by the fly, that appears to do the impeding, or obstructing.  Hindering death’s progress.

Dickinson employs the very heart of humor here. For in the telling, the poem has it over King Death, if only for a moment. The poem dares to turn the tables on inevitability. A smile works its way onto my face.  For as I read I, too, momentarily play death at its own game.

Having attempted, as we do, to amass a modicum of sway, “I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/ What portion of me be / Assignable”, it is sweet control, that I relish, through my paraphernalia, my stuff.  Here, again, “and then it was / There interposed a Fly – ”.  This time, the poem makes me laugh at myself. Control? ForgetAboutIt!

The final stanza’s “fly” is a fading image, now blending “With Blue – ..” while the crisp words of the first line are replaced with an echo of ebbing consciousness: “..uncertain stumbling Buzz – ”. Light, me, failing windows and the fly seem to move toward one another. But, “I could not see to see – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

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