Compassion Comes Late

With cockroaches, disgust
does not become revenge.
It’s terror hammered like an onion.
And when a veteran roach, steeped
(like a tea bag) in survival’s dexterity,
shapeshifts: from under the sole
of the footwear of the Gods
you’re holding—and the cockroach
reappears electric on your skin
—it blots your mind,
your indelible shrieks
on a gyrus.

Over the years, you get better at it.
A paper towel might do.
The crunch and evisceration
are easier to expunge from the scene
than the emotions that come
with cleaning your shoe of the evidence.
A pinch of sorrow
pinches me when I kill baby
roaches, and when I pay
the exterminator for the hygienic,
organic mass murder
of my city life.

Once, in a hospital’s ground floor
where the cafeteria is,
I came across a fat roach
doing what the upturned do:
fibrillating its legs in futility
that they might touch the ground again,
that this is not how
he will be laid to rest,
his pallbearers won’t be ants.

What faulty design
flips those blattodea
like poorly made SUVs:
an excitatory chemical state
fi red awry? Too much grime on the surface
and they go fishtailing? I bent low,
and with my hard plastic doctor badge,
flipped the beast back on its feet,
watched it scurry away.

And yet, I was a humanitarian once,
the western kind. Cockroaches
were minded not exterminated, caused no
worthwhile illness, nothing like
what civilization offered.
The roaches were happy in their latrines,
had all they needed,
did not venture out much.
Not even in the kitchen
where lizards prowled.

Fady Joudah has published five collections of poems: The Earth in the Attic, Alight, Textu, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, and, most recently, Tethered to Stars. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic and is the co-editor and co-founder of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received the Arab American Book Award, a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is an Editor-at-Large for Milkweed Editions. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.


  1. A lovely moment of consciousness elevation… for who is to say why one would save a butterfly but stomp on a roach! All creatures of Divinity no less than the self.
    These funny little crawlers often find their way to my anatomy lab, perhaps attracted to the cool or the hint of cadaver, where I am amused at the shrieks of ignorant (meaning ingnor-ing their Truth) young minds watching me carry them outside (under class of course…I’m not that brave!).

  2. Yes!!! This needs to be said, and in this beautiful way. Thank you Fady.

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