Ross Gay

A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay

‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a powerful poem that presents an image of hope and beauty after a loss. The poem addresses the legacy of Eric Garner and how one might still find his presence in the world. 

This piece was written in 2015 after the death of Eric Garner on July 17th, 2014. He was killed by a New York City Police Department officer who used a prohibited chokehold. This beautiful poem was composed in his honor. It suggests that “perhaps” and “in all likelihood” that there are still some plants growing that Garner touched with his “very large hands.”

A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay


‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a short moving poem that suggests that there is still hope to be found after someone’s death.

The poem addresses the life and death of Eric Garner. Specifically, the poet refers to the man’s job at the Horticultural Department. While there, he planted flowers, using his “big hands” to place them “gently” in the soil. The speaker suggests that some of these flowers might still be growing. They could be providing homes to small creatures and turning sunlight into food, allowing “us” to breathe. 

You can read the full poem here

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-7

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.


some plants which, most likely,

In the first lines of ‘A Small Needful Fact,’ the speaker begins by referring to Eric Garner, a young black man who was killed by police in 2014. The poem picks up after the title. So, the beginning would read: “A small needful fact / is that Eric Garner worked…” He worked “for the Parks and Rec. / Horticultural Department,” Ross notes. This job does not. Some might suggest, goes hand in hand with the young man’s brutal death. It’s a peaceful job, one that involves planting flowers. 

The poet plays off this example of juxtaposition to paint a new picture of Eric Garner, one of a gentle man who worked hard and helped foster new life. 

Lines 8-15

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue


into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.

In the second half of the poem, the speaker suggests that maybe some of these plants are still growing and flourishing. This would leave Garner a beautiful and unusual legacy. They may be continuing to grow where he put them, feeding the “small and necessary creatures” and appearing pleasant to “touch and smell.” 

In conclusion, Gay describes how the plants are working in our favor, making it easier “for us to breathe.” They are converting sunlight into food, living peacefully. This peace leaves readers in a calm and complacent mood. It’s also quite emotional in its description of Garner’s life and how it was cut too short. 

Rather than dwelling on that sadness, though, the poet presents readers with a new image to consider, one of hope and peace. 

Structure and Form 

‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a fifteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines six and seven. 
  • Allusion: from the beginning of the poem, Gay alludes to the life and impact of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed in New York City in 2014. 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “large” and “likelihood” in lines four and five. 


What are the themes in ‘A Small Needful Fact?’ 

The themes at work in this poem include legacy and hope in the face of despair. The speaker utilizes the latter when he describes the flowers, Garner’s legacy. They speak to the impact the man had while he was alive. 

Why did Ross Gay write ‘A Small Needful Fact?’

Ross Gay wrote this poem in order to honor Eric Garner’s life and the impact he had on those he knew. The poem also suggests that he’s still making the world a better place through the flowers he planted. 

Who is the speaker in ‘A Small Needful Fact?’

The speaker is someone who knows about Eric Garner’s life and has considered what the man left behind after he was killed in 2014. Gay may have written this poem from his own perspective, but knowing who the speaker is is not necessary for understanding the poem. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Small Needful Fact’ should also consider reading some other Ross Gay poems. For example: 

Other related poems include: 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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