“The Cockroach” by Kevin Halligan should be read on two levels: literal and figurative. The point of view of the poem is first person with an unknown speaker. The poem is written in one stanza with a set rhyme scheme: ABACBCDEFGEGF.
The title of the poem—“The Cockroach”—implies that this is a specific cockroach. It is given almost human emotions as it traverses the impediments of a small roach versus mansized furniture. To add to the humanity of the roach, the speaker gives the insect a masculine personal pronoun to refer to the bug instead of the more restrained “it.”
The speaker watches a “large” cockroach cross his floor. The man focuses his attention on the insect. As it travels across the room, it avoids a dust bunny and seems to follow a familiar path next to the wall. Suddenly, the roach appears to have some kind of violent assault on it that forces it to make circles around a leg of a chair; then, it flips on its back as if to scratch its wings.
But soon he turned to jog in crooked rings,
Circling the rusty table leg and back,
And flipping right over to scratch his wings-
As if the victim of a mild attack
Of restlessness that worsened over time.
After a while, he climbed an open shelf
The attack worsened before the roach was able to resume his trek. It climbed up on an open shelf and sat there. Was this payment for some grievous wrong that it had perpetrated? It is apparent that the speaker has empathy for the insect as it struggles with some unknown attack. Strangely, the observer thought he saw something of himself in the insect.
The poet relates the events that the cockroach faces with the life of a person. As the person travels through life, it may seem that everything is as it should be. There is a clear path to follow. Then, something happens to throw the person off course: drugs, divorce, poor grades, parents’ deaths. Any of these things can be devastating to a person as he tries to fight life’s battles.
If a person is accosted by some distressing event, he may have to run around in circles and fall back on his bed and cry to get beyond the ruinous event. Sometimes, people have to find a safe haven and crawl up on a “figurative” shelf and recuperate for a time. The speaker saw himself in the cockroach because problems in life must be faced by man or beast.
The odd part of the ending of the poem is the reference to the man seeing himself in the cockroach. No one wants to relate to a cockroach. However, it was not the insect itself in which he saw himself, but rather the actions of the roach as it faced its injurious seizure.