An appreciation

achy and mehitabel: an appreciation. An eighth of an inch of dust had settled on the boxes left unopened for thirty or more years, boxes of broken Christmas ornaments, toys, and trophies, boxes of odds and ends, spider-webbed sachets of tax returns, receipts, and recipes, albums of photographs, black and whites of people dead a generation or more, cartons of letters, some never sent, crates of the sundry and miscellaneous… And then there were the books: KidnappedThe Red and the BlackPere GoriotIvanhoeFrankensteinThe AeneidWhite Fang– stack after stack of the “Classics.” During the early 60’s my Dad worked for Doubleday paperbacks and carried a square bottomed leather attaché, stuffed with samples, which he pitched to drugstores and local markets, anywhere really that had a paperback rack.  My parents were promiscuous readers and I remember books piled up all over the house, paperbacks six high and askew on the coffee table, a Robinson Crusoe propped up the sugar bowl and The Complete Tales of Edgar Allen Poe made the perfect doorstop. On my Dad’s nightstand a hardback Shakespeare set the foundation for a teetering tower of mystery and crime novels. My brothers and sisters and I grew up on the “good stuff”- the dinner table was where Dad pontificated on passages from Kierkegaard or Freud, at bedtime Mom read the newest adventure of d’Artagnan  or Zorro.  

At the bottom of one box I found a real treasure: Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel (1927). If you’ve never read it, do so immediately. It’s light poetry that makes you think and laugh and sometimes cry, often all at the same time. Accompanying some of these poems are ink illustrations by the brilliant cartoonist George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. Mehitabel is a true Romantic, a hip alley cat who has lived many lives- she was once Cleopatra in a previous incarnation. Archy was a vers libre bard in his former life but after death he was sentenced to the body of a cockroach for his indiscretions against classical form. At night he leaps upon the keys of Don Marquis’ typewriter, hammering out a cockroach’s view of the world, “from the under side now,” he says. Rich with humorous cynicism, absurdity, and wisdom, all of his verse is written in lowercase, without punctuation, because he is unable to hit both shift and letter keys to produce a capital letter. Marquis writes with a wry eye on the contemporary times: portly gin blossom comedians, flappers, labor rights, racial oppression, imperialism, women’s suffrage, the avant garde experiments in the Arts, and the soul-crushing poverty of the Depression.

what man calls civilization

always results in deserts

man is never on the square

he uses up the fat and greenery of the earth

each generation wastes a little more

of the future with greed and lust for riches

north africa was once a garden spot

and then came carthage and rome

and despoiled the storehouse

and now you have sahara

sahara ants and centipedes

toltecs and aztecs had a mighty

civilization on this continent

but they robbed the soil and wasted nature

and now you have deserts scorpions ants and centipedes

and the deserts of the near east

followed egypt and babylon and assyria

and persia and rome and the turk

the ant is the inheritor of tamerlane

and the scorpion succeeds the caesars

america was once a paradise

of timberland and stream

but it is dying because of the greed

and money lust of a thousand little kings

who slashed the timber all to hell

and would not be controlled

and changed the climate

and stole the rainfall from posterity

and it wont be long now

it wont be long

till everything is desert

from the alleghenies to the rockies

the deserts are coming

the deserts are spreading

the springs and streams are drying up

one day the mississippi itself

will be a bed of sand

ants and scorpions and centipedes

shall inherit the earth

Mehitabel is a lady, a dame in the best sense of the word. Part flapper, part working class survivor, part hussy- in some strange way she’s precursor to both the 60’s liberated woman and the flower child, a kind of 1920’s Joni Mitchell:

this is the song of mehitabel
of mehitabel the alley cat…

do you think that i would change

my present freedom to range

for a castle or moated grange

wotthehell wotthehell

cage me and i d go frantic

my life is so romantic

capricious and corybantic

and i m toujours gai toujours gai

i know that i am bound

for a journey down the sound

in the midst of a refuse mound

but wotthehell wotthehell

oh i should worry and fret

death and i will coquette

there s a dance in the old dame yet

toujours gai toujours gai

The 1960’s saw a resurgence of interest in the avante garde poetry of yesteryear. My favorite Marquis poem The Lesson of the Moth certainly jived with the “better to burn out” ethos of those excessive times.

i was talking to a moth

the other evening

he was trying to break into

an electric light bulb

and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows

pull this stunt i asked him

because it is the conventional

thing for moths or why

if that had been an uncovered

candle instead of an electric

light bulb you would

now be a small unsightly cinder

have you no sense

plenty of it he answered

but at times we get tired

of using it

we get bored with the routine

and crave beauty

and excitement

fire is beautiful

and we know that if we get

too close it will kill us

but what does that matter

it is better to be happy

for a moment

and be burned up with beauty

than to live a long time

and be bored all the while

so we wad all our life up

into one little roll

and then we shoot the roll

that is what life is for

it is better to be a part of beauty

for one instant and then cease to

exist than to exist forever

and never be a part of beauty

our attitude toward life

is come easy go easy

we are like human beings

used to be before they became

too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him

out of his philosophy

he went and immolated himself

on a patent cigar lighter

i do not agree with him

myself i would rather have

half the happiness and twice

the longevity

but at the same time i wish

there was something i wanted

as badly as he wanted to fry himself

archy

The Beats had their eye not only on Crane, Whitman and Rimbaud, but also drank deeply from H.D., cummings, and Apollinaire. I’m unaware of any critic asserting the same, but I have little doubt that they also owe a debt to archy and mehitabel. The same can be claimed for John Lennon’s In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works: the same bent social satire and wry observations on the human condition. Perhaps Marquis’ greatest unnoticed influence was on our very own poet laureate Bob Dylan.

Here’s a bit from Tarantula, where to my mind the influence’s made explicit:

aretha with no goals, eternally single & one step soft of heaven/ let it be understood that she owns this melody along with her emotional diplomats & her earth & her musical secrets

Next time you’re scavaging for treasures in a funky dust-bowl second-hand bookstore look for archy and mehetabel– you won’t be disappointed. Or order the new annotated version on Amazon or wherever you pilfer.

 

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