"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, April 14, 2013

La Cucaracha


~ A Favorite Game of Childhood ~


First they came for the Socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Paraphrased from the lectures of
Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller (1892-1984),
spoke against Hitler and was imprisoned
who in concentration camps from 1937 - 42

Whenever I hear these lines from Niemöller, I am reminded of the following poems by Muriel Rukeyser. And I was reminded of them again this weekend in connection with the hugely popular Purdue Bug Bowl -- a giant science / fun fair, held every spring, where they are more than decent to cockroaches, and insects are king!

What Do We See?
When they’re decent about women, they’re frightful about children,
When they’re decent about children, they’re rotten about artists,
When they’re decent about artists, they’re vicious about whores,
What do we see? What do we not see?

When they’re kind to whores, they’re death on communists,
When they respect communists, they’re foul to bastards,
When they’re human to bastards, they mock at hysterectomy-
What do we see? What do we not see?

When they’re decent about surgery, they bomb the Vietnamese,
When they’re decent to Vietnamese, they’re frightful to police,
When they’re human to police, they rough up lesbians,
What do we see? What do we not see?

When they’re decent to old women, they kick homosexuals,
When they’re good to homosexuals, they can’t stand drug people,
When they’re calm about drug people, they hate all Germans,
What do we see? What do we not see?

Cadenza for the reader

When they’re decent to Jews, they dread the blacks,
When they know blacks, there’s always something : roaches
And the future and children and all potential. Can’t stand themselves
Will we never see? Will we ever know?

by Muriel Rukeyser
from Breaking Open, 1973

In "What Do We See," Rukeyser is willing to count everyone in. Her pattern of inclusiveness extends to all the groups she can think of who are regularly subject to oppression and exclusion. In an ideal world, no group or individual would suffer discrimination for her being or her beliefs; yet the poet is realistic, realizing that even if in theory everyone is accepted, in practice this is almost never so. If we bring ourselves at last to take all human beings on their own terms, we'll balk at something else.

Cockroach, Periplaneta americana

Pushing the limits of tolerance, Rukeyser concludes with an invitation to consider the cockroach. Could we go that far? Can we overcome the words we were taught to sing as children:

La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha!
Me, I love you not at all!

To be fair, the roach is merely another living creature, trying to do its job on the planet, just as we are trying to do ours. In much the same context, Rukeyser expands upon the roach image in a later poem, "St. Roach," testing the reader's ability to empathize with the outgroup, the other. The poem begins with a lament for closemindedness:

St. Roach
For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
to eat your food
or know your poems
or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.

Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color, that was
neither good nor bad.

I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.

Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

by Muriel Rukeyser
from The Gates, 1976 (McGraw-Hill)

Any discussion of the poetic cockroach must include at least a nod to poor Gregor Samsa who is certainly troubled but beyond all wit. Rejected by all who know him, he is a victim of the disregard and loathing that Rukeyser describes. Untouchable.

On the witty side is Archy, the clever typing (all lower case) cockroach (and his friend Mehitabel the cat) created by humorist Don Marquis. Perhaps not as well known today, Archy was everyone's favorite cockroach when I was growing up:

He was literary:

" . . . the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not"


"when the pendant moon in the leafless tree
clings and sways like a golden bat
i sing its light and my love for thee
. . . us for the life romantic"


" . . . there is always some
little thing that is too
big for us every
goliath has his david and so on ad finitum


"procrastination is the
art of keeping
up with yesterday"


"to hell with anything unrefined
has always been my motto"


" . . . the lyric and imperial
believe that everything is for
you until you discover
that you are for it"


"I find it possible to forgive
the universe
i meet it in a give and take spirit
although i do wish
that it would consult me at times"


" . . . i hate one of these
grinning skipping smirking
senseless optimists worse
than i do a cynic or a

and just:

" . . . i would not consider
it honorable in me as a
righteous cockroach to crawl into a
near sighted man s soup . . . "

Archy and Mehitabel

A troop of clever cockroaches, perhaps not as wise as Archy but equally entertaining, appear in T. S. Eliot's Book of Practical Cats. The Old Gumbie Cat takes it upon herself to domesticate the roaches and put them to use around the house:

Postcard by dosankodebbie

These cartoonish cockroaches are fun, but it is Rukeyser's "St. Roach" and "What Do We See" that really ask if we are capable of overcoming prejudice and modifying our behavior. Can we open our hearts to the cockroach and grant it the title of "Saint"? A tall order, but something to think about.

What do we see?
What do we not see?
Will we never see?
Will we ever know?

In closing, thanks to Eileen Sheryl Hammer who said,
"We love Muriel, who understands what our world is made of!"

Previous References to Muriel Rukeyser
on this blog:
Icarus, Who Really Fell
Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life For a Single Glance
and coming next time: When the Iris Blows Blue

and on my daily blog The Quotidian Kit
All the Little Animals
Another Good Poem by Muriel Rukeyser
The Wrong Answer

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, April 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. Sue writes: Thank you, Kitti, for the blogpost including poets who sought to inspire an inclusive and positive view in regards to roaches. But after visiting Savannah, Georgia, I will never get over the horrors of the hoards of roaches that drove me off the sidewalks in the evening hours. I have had nightmares ever since: "First they came for the Communists..." I will pass on to Carmen, perhaps as inspiration to wax poetic in regards the carabid beetle. No one knows them better that she does--inside (literally) and out.

  2. I know what you mean Sue! Even though I love these poems, I've never been able to fully forgive the roaches of South Carolina who visited our hotel room when Ben was a tiny baby!

  3. More from Sue: -- And just in case we cannot open our hearts to the cockroach, the Terminix ad above and the "How to Kill Cockroaches" ad below help us to set our relationship right with the creature!

    But on a metaphysical level, these ads do point to the sad truth that many individuals and groups of people, especially the "near-sighted" ones, may wish for or actually seek that "final solution" --easy ways to exterminate or "re-educate" those they perceive as human roaches. The roach may find safety in the far-sighted man's soup. But roaches tend to survive and thrive, no matter what. So we might as well open our hearts and learn to live with them. (Great literature always inspires a homily!!!)

  4. As you probably realize, the ads are selected by a search engine (not by me!) that picks out key words and sometimes makes totally ludicrous connections. I confess, I was shocked to see the "exterminator" ads, that go directly against everything that Rukeyser is trying to tell us in those poems. It is a fallen world! Sigh.