Cockroach Story

Anthony Thwaite

The reason for a cockroach in a story must differ from the reason for a cockroach in a kitchen.

Leon Wieseltier, TLS

It was not home. It was in Tokyo
At half-past ten at night or thereabouts.
I went into the kitchen, flicked the switch,
And saw him crouching on the table’s edge.

He was enormous, brown, and very still.
His feathery branches waited, so it seemed,
For further movement, and for me to move.
We looked at one another very hard.

He did not move, nor did I, watching him.
The jet-lag left me drowsy still, though sleep
Seemed far away, as I was far away.
I studied him as if in Japanese.

Aburamushi is the name for him
I suddenly remembered, wondering
What abura means: mushi is ‘insect’ or
A dozen other things in Japanese,

Such as a kind of soup, both clear and poached.
This cockroach, though, was more a samurai,
Plated and helmeted and plumed and proud.
I faced him as a common yokel might,

Lest he should shove me sideways with his sword,
Or leap across the tabletop and land
Bristling with fury in my sweating hair.
It was a hot September night, and I

Was tired of travel. ‘I’ll get it over with –
This stinker from the floorboards makes me sick,’
I thought, ‘and I am sick of fantasy.’
I took one slipper off and lunged at him.

He skidded off the table, hit the floor
With a soft slushy plop, and sidestepped back
Towards the sink. I threw myself full-length
And smashed him with the slipper, and crouched down.

His scales fanned out. He bled onto the boards,
Gave half a shrug, and then lay still and dead.
I wiped the slipper with a newspaper,
Rinsed both my hands, and groped my way to bed.

That is the story. This is the poem, told
In metre, with a rhyme to end it all.
The reasons for the cockroach, or the poem,
Or why I’ve told the story – who can tell?

A cockroach in a kitchen is the truth.
A cockroach in a story may be lies.
The insect was both noble and uncouth.
The writer makes a life from mysteries.