The Lost Poetry of the Palmetto...Bug
A Review of Don Marquis' archyology ii (the final dig),
edited by Jeff Adams and with drawings by Ed Frascino.
University Press of New England, 1998. Hardcover. 121 pages. $15.95.

     Jeff Adams, who has recently collected the previously uncollected writings of Archy the cockroach, has done the bug's illiterate cousins a great favor. For those who have never met Archy, some introductions: from the 'teens to the 'thirties, newspaper columnist Don Marquis printed the chronicles of Archy the roach and Mehitabel the alley cat, written, Marquis maintained, by a cockroach who lived in his office. When a blank sheet of paper was left in the typewriter at night, Archy would write letters to his "boss," Marquis, who then published them in his columns for the New York Sun and, later, the Herald Tribune. As fans know, "Archy" should really be written as "archy" because the bug -- who could type only by hurling himself headfirst at the typewriter keys -- lacked the ability to use upper case.

     The inability to capitalize or punctuate, it seems, was Marquis' sly commentary on vers libre ("free verse") poets; the conceit also gave Marquis (via Archy) a way to write clever, often pointed commentaries on life and the world at large. As Archy explains in the opening letter from archy and mehitabel, the first collection of his poems:

i once was 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

In Archy's letters to Marquis -- all of them in free verse, incidentally -- we see not only a view "from the under side" but what a cockroach might think were it a person. So, when I see a cockroach crawling towards me -- as I did last Thursday night at around 11:30 pm -- I think twice before reaching for the roach spray, a shoe, or, more likely, climbing on my chair and hollering for my wife to come and kill it. Which is why I began by saying that Jeff Adams has done Archy's species a great favor: while I hesitate to call for help, the bug has time to escape.

     Though Archy escapes from many close calls in his fictional life, his creator Don Marquis died in 1937. Volumes of his writings remained in a trunk until Jeff Adams published archyology (1996) and this year's archyology ii. While archyology is a wonderful collection of work that truly deserved to move from manuscript to publication, archyology ii is more for the truly dedicated Archy fan. Some of the poems are as good as any in archyology or the earlier archy books, but it's easier to understand why others remained buried for so long.

     For example, take "The Great False Teeth Mystery," episodic fragments of a mystery tale that stars Archy as a detective, and which Adams has distributed in short sections over the course of the book. It's fun to read if you enjoy the idea of a cockroach detective and it does poke fun at the genre of detective novels, but one wonders if Marquis would have wanted it published. The story doesn't hold together very well (is that part of its parody of detective fiction? or just the mark of an unfinished work?), and Archy seems more of a supporting character than the star of the show, often appearing only at the end of the episode.

     However, as an admirer of archy (and Marquis) who hungered for more tales from the underside, I enjoyed archyology ii. Although written between 60 and 80 years ago, several of his letters resonate with life today: the recent strikes by workers in the auto and telephone industries might find wry sympathy in Archy's threat to strike unless his verses are printed in a larger font. And Mehitabel's offer (typed by Archy) to the city government must appeal to just about any public figure wary of the press: after first offering to organize cats to catch rats at city hall she then adds that she knows a cat who, "if properly approached," would be willing to eat any reporters the mayor dislikes.

     While the Archy of archyology ii may not take his place among other great roaches in literature, the Archy of Don Marquis' other books (archy and mehitabel, archy's life of mehitabel, archyology) clearly deserves a place in the Palmetto canon, alongside Kafka's metamorphosed Gregor Samsa, and the roach-narrator of Daniel Even Weiss's recent novel The Roaches Have No King (1994). So, while archyology ii does not contain the best of Archy's stories of life from the underside, Archy is one cockroach worth getting to know, with a perspective always worth considering. As he remarks in another volume, "human wandering through the zoo / what do your cousins think of you"?

© 1998 by Phil Nel. All rights reserved.