Explain the poem "The Cockroach" by Kevin Halligan. How are nature and life portrayed in the poem?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Cockroach” by Kevin Halligan provides an unusual poetic subject: the dreaded cockroach of familial fame.  I can remember my mother saying: If you see one cockroach, there are 3,000 hiding somewhere waiting for its return. Nothing is more disgusting than seeing cockroaches overtake food or anything else as is often shown on television.

The poem could have been titled “Sonnet to a Cockroach” because that is the form the poem takes.  It has fourteen lines with an irregular rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFGEGF.  In addition,  the two lines at the end do not rhyme.  The narration is first person with the narrator observing the movements of the roach.

The reader learns that this is a giant roach.  There are over 4,000 cockroach species with only 34 that interact with human beings.  Apparently, the poetic cockroach is one of these.

The cockroach’s life may represent the simplicity of nature.  The roach probably is scouting for the rest of his group, finding food and sanctuary to eat and breed. “Essentially, cockroaches are considered to be escape artists.” Instead of squashing it, which is normally the first thing a person wants to do, the narrator decides to watch it.  At first, the movements of the insect seem to follow what would seem the natural plan for a cockroach.  He avoids a dust bunny; then, he finds his way to the edge of the floor and follows a path along it. 

Suddenly, his movements become sporadic.  Jogs, circles, flips, scratches—these are the frantic actions as the cockroach proceeds to a shelf and stops there.  Possibly he saw the man observing him, and it provoked his frenetic efforts to get out of the way. The roach appeared uncertain as to what to do next or where to go.  The poet suggests that the insect is a reincarnation of someone who had committed a crime, and now receives his punishment living as the disgusting cockroach.

In reviewing the poem, another interpretation can be made. This is an extended metaphor for a person’s life.  The person starts on a steady path in his early years with motivation in education and career and moving with a purpose just  as the cockroach did. “Soon, he turned to jog in crooked rings” suggests that a man may become confused in later life.

As if the victim of a mild attack

Of restlessness that worsens over time.

After a while, he climbed an open shelf

And stopped. He looked uncertain where to go.

The sense of confusion continues to be expressed through the verb choice of the poet.  The line “flipping right over” symbolizes the change in tone and change in the way that the poem develops. From the description of a cockroach to the realization that people often do not know where to go to find safety or security, this is an interesting poem.

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