Writer in Residence

A New National Emblem Revisited

Submitted by Dan MacIsaac



I was too hasty the other day. For nice, polite Canadians, the spider icon is just too darn ornery. In true Northern fashion, I apologize. We need something more civil yet found from coast to coast to coast. So I champion the fly. Most are gentle and harmless like the midge and gnat, and many, such as the flower fly, are beneficial pollinators. Only the odd species is virulent, like the black fly and the moose fly.

Across the great pantheon of Canadian Literature, the fly looms large. It is not merely dinner for a spider. It buzzes above its weight class.

For Irving Layton, there is something cosmic about flies. In his “Tall Man Executes a Jig,” “the haloing black jots/ Meshed with the wheeling fire of the sun.” P. K. Page in “Evening Dance of the Grey Flies” discovers in “their cursive flight a gold calligraphy,” imagery of the marvelous transformation just before death, that incredible alchemy. Layton in “Neanderthal” lambasts a sadist who condemns a fly to a slow tortuous death by insecticide. In “The Bluebottle,” Ralph Gustafson is wonderstruck by the fly buzzing against “crimson maple” and the “extremity” of “the blue sky.” Joe Rosenblatt conjoins the flight of the fly with the poet’s “song gargantuan/ with tiny wings” (“The Séance with the Silicate Kings, iii). Phyllis Webb plays ironic voyeur in “Flies,” watching the acrobatics of two wee beasts on the ceiling. Exotically, in “Ways of seeing a firefly,” Yvonne Blomer riffs on bioluminescence, “The stars/ send their children/ dancing down.” Allow me the poetic license of ignoring the fact that a firefly is a beetle. Indeed, flies, beetles, muskoxen, humans--we are all stardust.

Better the fly than the roach. In “Death of a Cockroach,” Robert Service comically laments: “From cellar gloom to stellar space/ Let bards and beetles have their place.”

Better the fly than the mosquito. For Ivaluartjuk, the Iglulik singer and story-teller, the mosquito exemplified the opposing misery of summer: “Cold and mosquitoes/  These two pests/ Come never together” (tr. Knud Rasmussen).

The fly is an eminent messenger in other literatures. In the wild cosmos we inhabit, a human is just a gnat--minute and mortal. In “The Fly,” William Blake asks, “Am not I? A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?” Like flies, humans “dance,/ And drink & sing,” until “blind” fate strikes us down. Ted Hughes sanctifies flies. In “Gnat-Psalm,” “they are the nails/ In the dancing hands and feet of the gnat-god.”  The haiku master Issa could be called an artsy entomologist. Flies are his obsession. The wanderer inscribes poignant syllables:

     Flies in the temple

     mimic the hands

     of Buddhists with beads.

The supernatural force of the fly is found in the Irish myth, “The Wooing of Étaín,” where the heroine is transformed into a giant guardian fly. Gloriously violet, she stands (or hovers) by her man.

Emily Dickinson saw an omen of mortality in this insect, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.” But Canadians, red-blooded survivalists, are unafraid. In our overgrown Bush Garden, the fly buzzes strong and free.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Raised on Vancouver Island, Dan MacIsaac is a third-generation lawyer and served for ten years as a director on the board of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. His poetry, verse translations, and fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and magazines. One of his stories was short-listed for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards, one of his poems received the 2014 Foley Prize from America Magazine, and another poem was short-listed for the 2015 Walrus Poetry Prize. He lives in Victoria. Cries from the Ark is his first poetry collection.