Confessions of a Cockroach / Headstone by Mike Johnson
Auckland: Lasavia Publishing (2017). RRP: $29.95
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
I have, for some time, admired Mike Johnson’s writing – it has a directness and musicality, an elegance and mystical feel that I find riveting. Confessions of a Cockroach is no exception. Confessions of a Cockroach and Headstone are two prose poems of novella length and are a unique literary endeavour. To put the two novellas on equal footing, they are presented in a “head to toe” format. Read one story and then turn the book upside down to read the other.
Throughout both stories, Johnson lets his characters (the cockroach and the headstone) tell their histories in language both naturalistic and rich. The cockroach tells his story from his vantage point on the steps of a bank, where he watches the world go by:
On my bum, on the street, eyes collide without me, or the dubious benefit of my intervention. No longer do I come between people and the things they want to look at. No longer do I smudge the view. I sink out of sight the way a dead fish might sink into the water, quietly and fast fading. Invisibility follows quickly after. Being invisible is like sitting on the bottom of the ocean. A little light filters in from above. Creatures of all shapes and sizes glide in and out of vision. The world undulates gently within its perceptible wavelength.
The world in a hubcap.
But none of that matters. I have found somewhere to sit. A place to occupy. I have my little piece of invisibility. My stake in the un-world. At least until I am moved on. No matter how invisible you are, you can always be moved o, invisibility offers no immunity in that regard. I mean from the forces of law and order. Invisibility doesn’t cut any ice with the boys in blue; they have heard it all. (14)
The cockroach’s language is striking and even-handed, expressing the idea that it is “easier to look at people’s legs rather than their faces.” He gives a sympathetic view while being invisible to passers-by. As he says, “Being invisible has its advantages. Being known and seen by the world is not all it’s cracked up to be.” The examples of his thoughts and feelings ae many and varied. Many are taut, direct and effective, as in this example in which he describes an attractive lady:
An attractive lady with elegant legs brought me a falafel out of pity. She ordered it and waited at the takeaway as it was being made. Then she brought it over to me. Pity made her body shake. I saw her hesitation in the turning of her knees. Her voice was low and kind. Perhaps I reminded her of a relative, someone she felt guilty about. (27)
He can also use his voice to reflect life in general, as we see in his description of “The Christian”:
The Christian is a very nice man doing his best. Doing his duty. shaping up before god. He has a very visible smile. Being nice is a point of honour for him. He always brings me something to eat. He tells me that I should identify myself with something more uplifting and is disturbed by the notion that the cockroach has a supernatural aspect. (36)
We encounter him later in the narrative when he has been moved from the steps while the bank is being painted. Born to relate his story, he tells us about the skipping girl, the tramps, the passers-by and what is going on in the city’s streets:
Sooner or later it gets back to this. Men arrive out of the morning twilight to erect scaffolding. They are going to scrub this tiny part of the world clean. Which means me. I get scrubbed, too. Scrubbed with the graffiti. The world might sink into a cloud of unbbeing, or burn up in heat death, but the old bank façade will stand staunch with a freshly scrubbed face. It’s amazing what a bit of spit and polish will do. (99).
Johnson’s writing is direct, pithy, non-nonsense, funny and delightful. One of the most uplifting aspects I the story is the cockroach’s determination not to give up on life and, despite the brief dark moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite all his setbacks, his hunger and his poverty, nothing will shut down his indomitable spirit. Confessions of a Cockroach is a book where we very quickly begin to care about the character of the cockroach and the headstone who tell their stories. They become more than oddities because Johnson lets them speak to us in clear, unsentimental language. We almost lie with them in their frightening, thrilling world. Johnson has the skills of a novelist, and a poet’s ability to concentrate on what matters.
The second story, “Headstone”, is told from the point of view of the headstone, which captures the exchanges, the ephemera, the musings that take place, the visitors to the cemetery and the children playing. As he says:
Bless ’em all! Take turns if you wish. Make a wish if you wish. I’m open to all comers, the long and the shot and the tall. I’m not much to look at, but I’ve got staying power. (13)
Here we are witness to the life that goes on in he cemetery from day-to-day. Indeed, an evocative story emerges from the diverse moments recalled by the headstone. In his recollections, we move from sadness to humour, from subtle, moving moments to amusing remarks, to dreams and descriptions of the people who come to the cemetery, one of these is the skipping girl:
Here comes the girl with the skipping rope. She’s an occasional visitor and not a part o the hopscotch gang. Noe how aloof she is from the other children. She has come from the street, from the school of hard knocks, and I wonder sometimes if she is a child at all She seems so independent. Nothing seems to faze her. (27)
The humour and warmth in the tale give us moments that are sometimes painful, often moving and at other times amusing or sad. These unadorned real moments, the characters and the narrator give the reader a moving, humorous, rich, and charming scenarios. The wonder of this book is how the seemingly inconsequential moments and our suspended belief in the stories, somehow become a moving narrative, as here, where he imagines his “beggar’s eye view of the world”:
I get a beggar’s eye view of the world, but there’s not much to see. It’s a pretty minimal landscape: keep off the grass. Even a beggar is rich in the passing parade of legs, the long and the short and the tall. Beggars may choose the busiest places; headstones don’t have that luxury. Not much hustle and bustle around here, although the picnic looks like a lot of fun. (47)
I feel, in both these stories, Johnson is at his best when fixing on particulars. we come to know the complexity of the Cockroach and the Headstone; we witness narrative tension and reach a satisfying end to both tales.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry – haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose – and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).