The Best of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis

[rating=5] Genius. Pure genius. I savored ‘Archy and Mehitabel’; read every last word. From the insightful introductory essay by E.B. White, to the scratchy pen illustrations by George Herriman of ‘Krazy Kat and Ignatz’ fame, to the final poem by Don Marquis, the whole thing filled me with glee.

Marquis was a newspaper reporter during and after WWI, and these vers libre poems were published in the New York Sun between 1916 and the early 1920s. The humor is timeless, but they are steeped in the mood and politics and society of that era. The subject matter of the poems varies widely; from ghosts and ectoplasm to Shakespeare and theater, and the narrators are variously cats, parrots, rats, toads, fleas, moths, and dogs.

The poems are written without punctuation or capitalization, using line breaks to give the necessary rhythmic pauses. This is because they were written by a fictional cockroach, Archy, who was a free verse poet in a previous life, and who wrote stories on Don’s old typewriter at the newspaper office when everyone in the building had left.

Archy accomplished this in a painful fashion by flinging himself headfirst down onto the keys (thus, no capitals, as it would be impossible for him to hit a key and shift at the same time with his full-body typing technique). When he needs explicit punctuation, he has to type it out full length, as ‘exclamation point’, ‘period’ or ‘question mark’.

Mehitabel, Archy’s partner in crime, is another transmigrated soul. A downtrodden alley cat with loose morals, she claims to have been Cleopatra in a former life. Mehitabel laments the domestic trials of the female artist hampered by kittens, but her constant refrains of wotthehell wotthehell and toujours gai toujours gai show her resilient and devil-may-care spirit.

I don’t know what it is about these stories that captured my imagination so completely. The voice of Archy is distinctive, seductive, persuasive. He often despairs of his condition as a bug, not in a Kafkaesque way, but in the manner of a true writer plagued by doubt and angst about the quality of his verse, always struggling against his muse, asking the question “is it literature?”. His mastery of language is awe-inspiring. His turn of phrase is quick, nonchalant and witty.

In the poem ‘archy interviews a pharaoh’ (which is actually about Prohibition and a thirst for beer), Archy devises half a dozen playful ways of referring to the dry pharoah in a deferential yet saucy manner. He calls him ‘my regal leatherface’, ‘old tan and tarry’, ‘the princely raisin’, ‘divine drought’, ‘my reverend juicelessness’, and ‘the royal dessication’.

I found myself wanting to type out several of these poems – notably, ‘the lesson of the moth’ – to print and post around my workplace as a constant reminder of the juicy essence of life and romance, and the universal pain of writing. They taste like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, yet they bubble with an effervescence and playfulness all their own. They look forward, towards John Steinbeck and Henry Miller and the Beat generation to come.

This is not your standard poetry. It’s not likely to be studied in English literature classes in high school (more’s the pity), it doesn’t often rhyme and it isn’t Tennyson or Milton (although the writer has clearly read and revered these greats, and references them in his work). Marquis speaks in an American voice, a free voice, a laughing, crying, comic, tragic voice. It’s great stuff and I hope you read it.

5 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, poetry, comedy, 224 pages, Publisher: Everyman’s Library (2011)
Read from October 19 to November 25, 2012

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