The first collection of the poems of archy the cockroach, introducing mehitabel the alley cat.
"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 lease on life"
— archy himself
The poetry of archy the cockroach was unleashed onto the world in 1916 through the pages of The Evening Sun, a New York newspaper. Don Marquis transcribed the poems in his daily column, George Herriman did the illustrations and the public loved it. This, the first collection was published in 1927 and features the original illustrations.
There's a whole and elaborate backstory to the characters, ably recorded by the indomitable archy, who produced his work by manipulating a typewriter in the newspaper offices. In the words of Don Marquis:
We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about upon the keys.
He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward…He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before.
Marquis, often referred to by archy as "boss", faithfully shares these poems without comment, leaving the reader free to pop in and out of the worldview of a smart, well-read and determined poet trapped in a cockroach's body. Some of the work is clearly aimed at the boss, especially when he's asking favours or griping about his conditions:
don t you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven t had a crumb of bread for i don t know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings and paste
archy deals with the whole of his philosophy and shares it with the world. Love, politics and all of life, everything was grist to archy's mill in a series of poems in which keen observation and story-telling dance around his thoughts of mortality, pleasure and all aspects of a cockroach's life. From low taverns to high society, somehow crossing the Atlantic into Europe, archy ranges as he tells tales and breaks the fourth wall into human life. His insight into the world is almost unmatched in poesy, and his conversations with others in his cockroach world have a big impact on use, towering above in the human realm.
live so you
can stick out your tongue
at the insurance doctor
From interviews with a mummified Pharoah in the Metropolitan Museum
little scatter footed
to being marooned on Long Island
, bloody retellings of Aesop's fables
, swapping tales in New York speakeasies
and low dives, notes on Shakespeare and Milton and many travels through Europe, archy shares all. He's unafraid to bare his soul on his darker side, telling of a suicide leap from the Woolworth Tower
, but overall remains curious and open to all the world, painstakingly recording all for his readers to wonder at.
Other characters make their appearance, most especially mehitabel, an alley cat who is the recincarnation of Cleopatra and describes herself as "toujours gai", her flibbertigibbet nature a stark contrast to the faithful philosopher. She tells her sad story, punctuated by her cliché hunger and hope, remaining a staunch companion and friend to archy, rather like Hobbes to Calvin.
mehitabel is a believer
in the pythagorean
theory of the transmigration
of the soul and she claims
that formerly her spirit
was incarnated in the body
She spends her time now as an alley cat, mostly content with her new rough life, but wistful.
i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthhell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthhell
do you think that i would change
my present freedom to range
for a castle or moated grange
cage me and i d go frantic
my life is so romantic
capricious and corybantic
and i m toujours gai toujours gai
Throughout the book, this pair share the ups and downs of their lives, rejoicing with the happy and weeping when necessary. A stoic traveller, archy records his thoughts and passes them on for our edification, and mehitabel ricochets around and tells her own story of food, love and sadness. As I read now, I am astonished at how well it has aged, for while technology has changed the world, the world of the soul desires and problems of cockroaches, alley cats and humans has not. The poems remain both thoughtful and charming, making the reader smile, or think, or wonder.
Marquis' genius creation has inspired and delighted many over the years. Musicals have been written, one featuring Eartha Kitt (who else?) as mehitabel. Lemony Snicket names a pair of submarines after them, Nero Wolfe's assistant debates sending out Christmas cards signed by the pair, and many are the songs sung in their honour. The book is still in print (my copy, a dilapidated paperback bought from the Friends of the Davis library for 50¢ is ever in my backpack) and generations have enjoyed this work. After over a hundred years we can still enjoy a smile as we read.
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