‘Archy And Mehitabel’ By Don Marquis (New Year’s Resolution, Book Thirty)

Archy and Mehitabel is a collection I’d read and that I’d stored away somewhere in my head to find and read later. So some years later, I found it in the poetry section of Capitol Hill Books for just just four dollars. As luck would have it, I had six dollars store credit remaining.

What is it? Is it poetry? Maybe.

Archy is a vers libre (free verse) poet who has been reincarnated as a cockroach and who chronicles his own adventures and thoughts and those of his companions (mainly, a cat named Mehitabel and a rat named Freddy) by jumping up and down on the keys of a typewriter in the dead of night in the office of a newspaper. Because he can only jump on one key at a time, he can’t make use of the shift key, so writes everything in lower case (and doesn’t use apostrophes for the same reason).

Mehitabel claims to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra, among others, though her story often doesn’t hold water. She comes across as a working class gal with a vulnerability to the charms of manipulative and cruel upper crust bad boys. The only vague indication that she might once have been a bit more couth is that she knows (and frequently describes herself as being, despite setbacks) toujours gai.

The chronicles are written as poetry (mostly free verse, naturally), but what are we to think of them as poetry? They lack the genius of a comic verse genius like Lear, but they are lightly amusing and I read it fairly well through in a short burst, so it held my attention.

The writing is witty, in a workmanlike way. The conceit is amusing. Most of it is downright fun (highlights include a suicidal struggle between Freddy the rat and a tarantula, which results in Freddy’s demis and after which Freddy is dropped into the alley with ‘military honors’ by the various vermin of the office; also when Archy takes the wrong train and types a note on a typewriter in Long Island, asking the owner to mail said note to the newspaper office where Don works so that he will know to pick Archy up at the station).

They were written as filler for a six day a week column, starting in 1916 and going through the thirties and I can’t help but feel that if I knew better the politics and gossip of New York City during the times when they were written that I would pick up on a great many funny references. Alas, I do not. Nonetheless, if you see an affordable copy, pick it up.

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3 thoughts on “‘Archy And Mehitabel’ By Don Marquis (New Year’s Resolution, Book Thirty)

  1. archy doesn’t jump up and down on the keys:
    he throws himself down from the top, you see,
    for each letter; he hurls his bug body aiming
    for a key—po’try’s painful, can e’en be maiming

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