This is a curious, short poem that outlines a single experience in a child’s life. At twelve, she helped her mother kill the roaches in their kitchen. The regret she felt afterward and her implication of herself as a murderer is interesting. Readers are likely to walk away from ‘At Last We Killed The Roaches’ with mixed feelings.
Explore At Last We Killed the Roaches
‘At Last We Killed The Roaches’ by Lucille Clifton is a thoughtful poem about an experience in a speaker’s childhood with roaches.
The poem begins with the speaker noting how she and her mother finally got to kill the roaches in their kitchen. This required sweeping them off the ceiling and dealing with them falling to the ground and into their hair. The speaker was relieved after the task was done but, as time passed, she started to feel regret and considered what she’d done as murder. The roaches were living the best they could, and her fingers, like blades, had killed them.
You can read the full poem here.
at last we killed the roaches.
mama and me. she sprayed,
covering us with red. the tribe was broken,
In the first lines of ‘At Last We Killed The Roaches,’ the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title. This is often the case with poems of this nature. In this case, the title/first line also works as a hook. It’s meant to draw the reader in and make them wonder what the speaker has to say about roaches within the form of verse.
Readers will likely also immediately take note of Clifton’s lack of capitalization. This is a common structure within her poetry, something that sets her work apart and can, on occasion, change a reader’s interpretation of the tone and atmosphere.
The speaker describes in the first lines how she, at twelve years old, helped her mother kill the roaches in their home. This is something that helps define the kind of home the two were living in. They had to take care of this themselves rather than pay someone to do it. This speaks to their financial situation.
The imagery in the following lines is also quite effective. It’s easy and disturbing to imagine the roaches falling on the speaker’s head. This dark image is described without emotion or particular emphasis. It’s just something that happened and had to happen in order to clean the home. The “tribe” of roaches was “broken” through the speaker and her mother’s sweeping of the ceiling.
the cooking pots were ours again
my hands were blades and it was murder murder
all over the place.
In the final lines, the speaker notes how after the tribe of roaches was broken, the kitchen and everything in it was “ours again.” This suggests that before this point, their lives were marked by shared territory. The roaches had control over the pots and areas of the kitchen the mother and daughter didn’t. It was a simple pleasure—cleanliness. It felt like “grace” for the time it lasted. The speaker notes that soon after, things shifted for her.
While at first she felt relieved and pleased by the lack of roaches in her home, she was soon haunted by the number of deaths she’d taken. This shows an interesting degree of empathy from a young child. She thought about her hands as “blades” and the acts she committed as “murder.” The repetition of the word “murder” emphasizes it while also mimicking how it rolled through her mind over and over again.
Structure and Form
‘At Last We Killed The Roaches’ by Lucille Clifton is an eleven-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, despite the lack of structure, this doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without rhyme. For example, the half-rhyme of “i” and “night” in line eight.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as lines six and seven.
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line. This can be created through the use of punctuation or meter. For example, “covering us with red. the tribe was broken.”
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “dying onto our shoulders, in our hair / covering us with red. the tribe was broken.”
- Metaphor: can be seen when the poet uses a comparison between two unlike things without using “like” or “as.” For example, “my dreams were blood / my hands were blades.”
‘At Last We Killed The Roaches’ speaks to the complexity of life and death, even when it comes to a creature as small and distasteful as a roach. The speaker outlines her childhood through simple images and then delves into her psyche in the second half of the poem.
The tone of this piece is clear and direct. Even at the end of the poem, when the speaker is describing how she felt like a murderer, the words are relayed without much emotion. This is something that speaks to the child’s experience of her world.
The mood of this poem varies. At first, readers are likely to find themselves feeling pity for a young girl living in a situation where roaches have to be swept off the ceiling. But, by the end, they’re like to be contemplating the young girl’s emotions and considering how they’d feel in the same situation.
Readers who enjoyed ‘At Last We Killed The Roaches’ should also consider reading some other Lucille Clifton poems. For example:
- ‘to my last period’ – a thoughtful poem. In it, the speaker mourns for her lost youth and acknowledges further changes to come.
- ‘oh my antic God’ – explores the yearning for a lost parent, Clifton remembering her mother and wanting to return to that nostalgic past.
- ‘good times’ – a speaker discusses the small, wonderful things that make for “good times”.