The poetry of roadkill

Ode to the Maggot

by Yusef Komunyakaa

Brother of the blowfly

& godhead, you work magic

Over battlefields,

In slabs of bad pork

& flophouses. Yes, you

Go to the root of all things.

You are sound & mathematical.

Jesus, Christ, you’re merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,

You cast spells on beggars & kings

Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb

Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you

As you take every living thing apart. Little

Master of earth, no one gets to heaven

Without going through you first.

Creepy, he said.  Disrespectful.

Well.  Ahem.  I do tend to be impulsive.

Perhaps a different poem—“To an Athlete Dying Young,” for example—would not have so offended a certain person living in my household.

Or maybe what offends is the act of using a dead animal for my own creative purposes and others’ consumption.  But isn’t that what we all do everyday, albeit in a less grotesque fashion?  Use dead creatures and organisms to consume and create?  Writers, chefs and vaccine makers are not alone in this morbid activity.  We are all comrades of the maggot, who consumes dead flesh so it can transform into a glorious . . . blowfly.

For what it’s worth, I tried to show respect for the dear dead deer by placing a flower on its carcass.  That’s more respect than what’s shown by passing motorists who gag and drive on.

Also, for the record, I washed my hands before making dinner.  Soap and water, I swear.

I didn’t actually see maggots on the deer as I taped the poem to its body. (Tape, I discovered, is not designed to attach to animal skins.)  Presumably the maggots had already developed into the blowflies that swarmed around the bloated belly and head.

But I have seen and smelled maggots before and can think of no creature more disgusting or more unsuited to be ode-ed.  An ode is a dignified poetic form and its subjects are usually beautiful and inspiring.  Think of Keats’ nightingale and Grecian urn.  Writing an ode to a maggot is just a little cheeky.  But Komunyakaa gives beauty to the maggot, calling it lustrous; intelligence, as he describes it as sound and mathematical; and even transcendence.  “Little master of the earth” he calls it, and brother to the godhead.

It’s not surprising that Komunyakaa would laud the lowly maggot.  The maggot is a great equalizer, a powerful being that doesn’t discriminate between beggars and kings.  For a black man who grew up in the South during the civil rights era, there must be some amusement and comfort in considering the common end we all share.


A funny thing happened on the way to the forum department:  While researching maggots for this post, I chanced upon something called “maggot art.”  Elementary school children dip maggots in paint and place them on canvas to slime and slither about. The results are quite lovely, and you can see them here

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