Sunday, January 20, 2013

archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis

Source of book: I own this.

Every reader, I suspect, has a particular obscure author that gives him or her a unique pleasure. Don Marquis is one of mine.

Marquis wrote in a variety of genres from novels to plays, but he was best known for his work as a journalist and humorist for the New York Evening Sun, and the New York Herald Tribune in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. It was in this capacity that he conceived the character of Archy in 1916.

Archy is a cockroach who was a free verse poet in a previous life. As punishment for his abandonment of classical forms, he is condemned to live as a despised life form while fully retaining his poetic powers. As he puts it:

gods i am pent up in a cockroach
i with the soul of a dante
am mate and companion of fleas
i with the gift of homer
must smile when a mouse calls me pal
tumble bugs are my familiars
this is the punishment meted
because i have written vers libre
i with the brain of a milton
fell into the mincemeat at christmas
and was damned-near baked in a pie 

Marquis “discovers” him flinging his body against the typewriter keys one night, and thereafter leaves a sheet of paper in the machine each night. Since capitalization (and most punctuation on older machines) requires two keys at a time, Archy cannot use them, and so writes with all lower case and without punctuation. In this, he parallels E. E. Cummings, who lived roughly at the same time, although it appears that Marquis published the first Archy poems before Cummings published his first collection. The two share the unorthodox approach to capitalization and punctuation (although Marquis did it as part of the humor rather than for shocking effect) and a fascination with transcendentalism and reincarnation. (Both were popular in the latter years of the 19th Century.)

Archy’s friend Mehitabel is a female alley cat,  who claims to be a reincarnated version of Cleopatra. (Doesn’t everyone pick Cleopatra? Or is it just my impression?) Despite her royal origin and claim to the status of lady, her behavior is decidedly indecorous and her language (mildly) salty.

Accompanying the poems are the delightful illustrations of George Herriman, the African-American cartoonist responsible for Krazy Kat.

archy and mehitabel is the first collection of poems, and covers the Prohibition era. While humor is certainly present, the poems also are a pointed commentary on human nature, social issues, and hypocrisy. The introductory poem reads as follows:

the coming of archy

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went
into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i can't eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why don't she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay
most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it
i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems
showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he won't be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then
don't you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i havent had a crumb of bread
for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy

Mehitabel is gradually introduced into the book, and her various love affairs are a recurring subject of the poems. In many cases, the tom cats contribute their own poetry, usually rhymed doggerel, such as the following.

persian pussy from over the sea
demure and lazy and smug and fat
none of your ribbons and bells for me
ours is the zest of the alley cat
over the roofs from flat to flat
we prance with capers corybantic
what though a boost should break a slat
mehitabel us for the life romantic
we would rather be rowdy and gaunt and free
and dine on a diet of roach and rat
than slaves to a tame society
ours is the zest of the alley cat
fish heads freedom a frozen sprat
dug from the gutter with digits frantic
is better than bores and a fireside mat
mehitabel us for the life romantic
when the pendant moon in the leafless tree
clings and sways like a golden bat
i sing its light and my love for thee
ours is the zest of the alley cat
missiles around us fall rat a tat tat
but our shadows leap in a ribald antic
as over the fences the world cries scat
mehitabel us for the life romantic
persian princess i dont care that
for your pedigree traced by scribes pedantic
ours is the zest of the alley cat
mehitabel us for the life romantic

The stray cat meme wasn’t limited to Marquis, of course. T. S. Eliot used the idea in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which I read last year. I got to hear Brian Setzer perform one of his signature tunes from his Stray Cats days - another fun use of the idea.

I can’t quote all of the poems I liked, but I do want to mention “the cockroach who had been to hell,” which tells of a roach that stumbled into a house that was being fumigated and believed it to be hell. I also loved the rather longish “archy interviews a pharaoh,” wherein Archy interviews a mummy, who complains of being rather dry after all these centuries. He craves beer, and would trade his royal history for a job in a brewery. He is unamused to discover that Prohibition will prevent him from slaking his thirst. There are several pointed poems about Prohibition in the collection. Presumably, subsequent books will comment on the passage of the 21st Amendment.

“clarence the ghost” is also fun - a complaint by a ghost about the annoyance of mediums always calling him up to ask him silly questions. In this as in many others, Marquis shows a talent for looking at situations from the other perspective.

I would also recommend “unjust,” a meditation on the sad fact that we consider superficial beauty to be good and ugliness to be evil. These lines alone makes the poem worthwhile:

but there is very little
justice in the universe
what is the use
of being the universe
if you have to be just
interrogation point

Marquis’ concern for the poor and downtrodden permeates the collection. I imagine that the poems composed during the Great Depression will be even more poignant.

pity the poor spider

i have just been reading
an advertisement of a certain
roach exterminator
the human race little knows
all the sadness it
causes in the insect world
i remember some weeks ago
meeting a middle aged spider
she was weeping
what is the trouble i asked
it is these cursed
fly swatters she replied
they kill off all the flies
and my family and i are starving
to death it struck me as
so pathetic that i made
a little song about it
as follows to wit

twas an elderly mother spider
grown gaunt and fierce and gray
with her little ones crouched beside her
who wept as she sang this lay

curses on these here swatters
what kills off all the flies
for me and my little daughters
unless we eats we dies

swattin and swattin and swattin
tis little else you hear
and we'll soon be dead and forgotten
with the cost of living so dear

my husband he up and left me
lured off by a centipede
and he says as he bereft me
tis wrong but i ll get a feed

and me a working and working
scouring the streets for food
faithful and never shirking
doing the best i could

curses on these here swatters
what kills off all the flies
me and my poor little daughters
unless we eats we dies

only a withered spider
feeble and worn and old
and this is what
you do when you swat
you swatters cruel and cold

i will admit that some
of the insects do not lead
noble lives but is every
man s hand to be against them
yours for less justice
and more charity

I am reminded again of Scrooge’s “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Perhaps also of the casual disregard of the “47%” that became the deciding factor in a recent election.

On a lighter note, “certain maxims of archy” contains some humorous gems.

prohibition makes you
want to cry
into your beer and
denies you the beer
to cry into

every cloud
has its silver
lining but it is
sometimes a little
difficult to get it to
the mint

there is always
something to be thankful
for you would not
think that a cockroach
had much ground
for optimism
but as the fishing season
opens up i grow
more and more
cheerful at the thought
that nobody ever got
the notion of using
cockroaches for bait

My favorite satiric poem of the bunch is “warty bliggins the toad.”

i met a toad
the other day by the name
of warty bliggens
he was sitting under
a toadstool
feeling contented
he explained that when the cosmos
was created
that toadstool was especially planned for his personal
shelter from sun and rain
thought out and prepared
for him

do not tell me
said warty bliggens
that there is not a purpose
in the universe
the thought is blasphemy

a little more
conversation revealed
that warty bliggens
considers himself to be
the centre of the said
the earth exists
to grow toadstools for him
to sit under
the sun to give him light
by day and the moon
and wheeling constellations
to make beautiful
the night for the sake of
warty bliggens

to what act of yours
do you impute
this interest on the part
of the creator
of the universe
i asked him
why is it that you
are so greatly favoured
ask rather
said warty bliggens
what the universe has done to deserve me

if i were a
human being i would
not laugh
too complacently
at poor warty bliggens
for similar
have only too often
lodged in the crinkles
of the human cerebrum

I’ll close with my wife’s favorite, “the robin and the worm” She is not nearly as fond of poetry in general as I am, but she does have a dry sense of humor.

a robin said to an
angleworm as he ate him
i am sorry but a bird
has to live somehow the
worm being slow witted could
not gather his
dissent into a wise crack
and retort he was
effectually swallowed
before he could turn
a phrase
by the time he had
reflected long enough
to say but why must a
bird live
he felt the beginnings
of a gradual change
invading him
some new and disintegrating
was stealing along him
from his positive
to his negative pole
and he did not have
the mental stamina
of a jonah to resist the
process of assimilation
which comes like a thief
in the night
demons and fishhooks
he exclaimed
i am losing my personal
identity as a worm
my individuality
is melting away from me
odds craw i am becoming
part and parcel of
this bloody robin
so help me i am thinking
like a robin and not
like a worm any
longer yes yes i even
find myself agreeing
that a robin must live
i still do not
understand with my mentality
why a robin must live
and yet i swoon into a
condition of belief
yes yes by heck that is
my dogma and i shout it a
robin must live
amen said a beetle who had
preceded him into the
interior that is the way i
feel myself is it not
wonderful when one arrives
at the place
where he can give up his
ambitions and resignedly
nay even with gladness
recognize that it is a far
far better thing to be
merged harmoniously
in the cosmic all
and this comfortable situation
in his midst
so affected the marauding
robin that he perched
upon a blooming twig
and sang until the
blossoms shook with ecstasy
he sang
i have a good digestion
and there is a god after all
which i was wicked
enough to doubt
yesterday when it rained
breakfast breakfast
i am full of breakfast
and they are at breakfast
in heaven
they breakfast in heaven
all s well with the world
so intent was this pious and
murderous robin
on his own sweet song
that he did not notice
mehitabel the cat
sneaking toward him
she pounced just as he
had extended his larynx
in a melodious burst of
thanksgiving and
he went the way of all
flesh fish and good red herring
a ha purred mehitabel
licking the last
feather from her whiskers
was not that a beautiful
song he was singing
just before i took him to
my bosom
they breakfast in heaven
all s well with the world
how true that is
and even yet his song
echoes in the haunted
woodland of my midriff
peace and joy in the world
and over all the
provident skies
how beautiful is the universe
when something digestible meets
with an eager digestion
how sweet the embrace
when atom rushes to the arms
of waiting atom
and they dance together
skimming with fairy feet
along a tide of gastric juices
oh feline cosmos you were
made for cats
and in the spring
old cosmic thing
i dine and dance with you
i shall creep through
yonder tall grass
to see if peradventure
some silly fledgling thrushes
newly from the nest
be not floundering therein
i have a gusto this
morning i have a hunger
i have a yearning to hear
from my stomach
further music in accord with
the mystic chanting
of the spheres of the stars that
sang together in the dawn of
creation prophesying food
for me i have a faith
that providence has hidden for me
in yonder tall grass
still more
ornithological delicatessen
oh gayly let me strangle
what is gayly given
well well boss there is
something to be said
for the lyric and imperial
believe that everything is for
you until you discover
that you are for it
sing your faith in what you
get to eat right up to the
minute you are eaten
for you are going
to be eaten
will the orchestra please
strike up that old
tutankhamen jazz while i dance
a few steps i learnt from an
egyptian scarab and some day i
will narrate to you the most
merry light headed wheeze
that the skull of yorick put
across in answer to the
melancholy of the dane and also
what the ghost of
hamlet s father replied to the skull
not forgetting the worm that
wriggled across one of the picks
the grave diggers had left behind
for the worm listened and winked
at horatio while the skull and the
ghost and prince talked
saying there are more things
twixt the vermiform appendix
and nirvana than are dreamt of
in thy philosophy horatio
fol de riddle fol de rol
must every parrot be a poll

“there are more things twixt the vermiform appendix and nirvana than are dreamt of in thy philosophy horatio.” Yes indeed.

Perhaps I am one of the very few, but I find Marquis’ writing to be amusing while more applicable to our present times than one might think on first glance.


  1. What a great review. I enjoy discovering lesser known authors, and this looks like a real gem!

    1. Well worth reading. I didn't quote it here, but my first introduction, and still one of my all time favorite poems, is "takes talent":

      there are two
      kinds of human
      beings in the world
      so my observation
      has told me
      namely and to wit
      as follows
      those who
      even though they
      were to reveal
      the secret of the universe
      to you would fail
      to impress you
      with any sense
      of the importance
      of the news
      and secondly
      those who could
      communicate to you
      that they had
      just purchased
      ten cents worth
      of paper napkins
      and make you
      thrill and vibrate
      with the intelligence

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