I went to ReaderCon in 2011 to meet Mike Allen. He was the editor of Mythic Delirium, a magazine that, along with Goblin Fruit, had liberated me from the academic poetry tradition. I had learned to have fun with poetry, thanks to them, and I wanted to meet Mike and learn more. He gave a workshop on genre poetry in which he mentioned flipping perspectives. He made a stray comment about flies knowing their purpose was to die. I mulled that line over for years, and this came out one summer afternoon. I was sunning myself, in my wife’s garden. I had my notebook with me, as I usually do. There were flies around.
John Philip Johnson, Contributor Note online at Rattle
Checking out this poem has included more “You don’t see that much” moments than I’ve ever had checking out any poem. Like for instance, a contributor note in the original publication. A writer who writes science fiction, now writing graphic poetry. Graphic poetry. Poetry as comic book. Or is it comic book as poetry? A poem I thought was just fun, then took me somewhere else (whether it was supposed to or not). A book that’s hard to order (nevertheless, she persisted. Damn. I swore I would stop ordering poetry books) and turns out to be $2 cheaper than advertised.
The poem in its original form is available online (link below); go ahead, I’ll wait, it’s short, won’t take you more than a minute. Following the Biblical (or Taoist, maybe) format of the title, “The Book Of…” (could be Job, Esther, — Tao te Ching — but it’s Fly), it’s numbered following Biblical chapter:verse format. Chapter 1 is about living. Chapter 2 is about dying. The Living verses contain discrete sentences, one per verse. The Dying chapter, taking a somewhat different format for its somewhat different tone, is one longer sentence, divided for semantic impact.
Some of the Living verses are applicable only to flies (unless one really wants to build a towering metaphorical structure), to wit:
Feeding on the living is good,
but feeding on the dead is better.
Nestle your offspring in the rancid.
Shit is beautiful.
Some of them, however, easily apply to people:
If you land on the wrist that holds the swatter,
consider yourself lucky, not clever.
Remain humble, if you think of anything.
You only have a few days;
I can not only imagine those adages framed on the walls of my apartment (and oh if we could only see such sentiments in other places as well — university provost’s offices, corporation headquarters, Congress…), but also in minuscule cross-stitch on tiny little pillows in some fly’s house somewhere.
But it’s when we reach the second chapter that things turn somehow beautiful. Even though the diction lays it out in the starkest terms, somehow it all feels poetic and metaphorical:
And when you are licked
by the frog’s tongue,
or swallowed by a songbird,
or felled in a cloud of nerve gas
and lie twitching, unconcerned,
know that it is the honor of a fly,
it is its purpose,
When I first read this, I felt a rush of regret for all the flies I had so honored. The humor came second, and then a consideration, helped along by the comparisons invited in the first chapter, to our own situation.
Since we all do, is it our purpose to die?
A great deal of Christian rhetoric places death as the entry into Glory, the transition from the world to heaven. I’ve always found it perplexing that, in spite of that, the mostly Christian West resists death with every tool available to it, and mourns rather than celebrates a passing. Eastern religions as well see a transition rather than an end. Yet living is given its purpose, and death is an interruption, not a purpose in itself. Would we approach life differently if we believed that death was our purpose?
I do remember an Archaeology/Anthropology course from long ago in which the professor stated haughtily that the most important natural process on Earth is death: it allows for consumption, and makes way for new, and sometimes improved, life. Death as purpose is not completely out of the realm of possibility.
I started this poem thinking, Oh, how cute, and ended up contemplating purpose. That’s quite a journey to take on so few words.
When I discovered Johnson is primarily a science fiction writer who moved away from academic poetry to something called genre poetry, I laughed out loud. Then I discovered his 2019 collection, The Book of Fly, containing this work, and promoted as: “Graphic poetry, like Twilight Zone episodes! 48 Big Pages! Full Color. Enjoyed by people who don’t like poetry!” It isn’t that I don’t like poetry; it’s that I so often don’t understand it, don’t understand why it’s poetry instead of prose. Here, I understand the format, its connection to the text. So, in spite of my vow to not buy any more poetry books (a vow I already broke once this year), I ordered the poetry comic book. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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Complete poem available online at Rattle.
Other poetry – graphic and text – can be found at Johnson’s website (where The Book of Fly can be ordered as well).