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If you borrow this book, you have to return it: Maureen Thorson

April 19, 2011 \pm\30 1:10 pm

[For this series, I’ve asked many wondrous writers to reflect on an individual copy of a book that is very important to them. Writers and publishers have varied and often impassioned relationships to their analog books, as actual books are still arguably the “realest” physical manifestation of their poetic pursuits. I think that as the Kindle and other digital representations of text continue their upward spiral, it’s important to reflect on books as the uniquely funky-smelling, emotion-provoking, paper-cutting, dust/coffee/spaghetti sauce-collecting artifacts that they are! Check back next week for Natalie Lyalin’s fave!]

Maureen Thorson lives in Washington DC, where she co-curates the In
Your Ear reading series at the DC Arts Center. Her first book, Applies
to Oranges, is now available from Ugly Duckling Presse.


When I was growing up, we had “nice books” that went on shelves in the living room – the big leatherbound Shakespeare and Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Dictionary and the copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Then there were the books hidden away in the guest room, the battered paperbacks furtively snuggled against each other – beat-up 25-centers with crumbly yellow pages, dried-out glue, and sometimes, weird marginalia my dad scrawled in some class or other (like the copy of Darkness at Noon, flyleaf festooned with hammers and sickles, antique cars, and rather incongruous Nazi and Allied tanks).

When I became a teenager, I was, like all teenagers, terminally bored. So I took to rooting around in those shelves in search of something to alleviate my ennui, and there I found Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel. A book with a premise so completely odd – a free verse poet is reincarnated as a cockroach and types out long, thin poems without any capitals (because he can’t work the shift key) at night on a typewriter in the offices of New York’s Evening Sun. In 1916. Oh, and he’s frenemies with a vaudevillian cat, the reincarnation of Cleopatra, who is homeless, and has to dance at night to keep from freezing.

archy the poet/cockroach laboriously transcribes mehitabel the cat’s songs, describes encounters with various animals ( reincarnated and not), interviews a mummy, is interviewed in turn by Martians, rails against hypocrisy and also people who try to kill cockroaches, agitates for better working conditions, offers his thoughts on Shakespearean scholarship, and basically ranges all over every topic imaginable, in a Tin Pan Alley patois leavened by a lifetime’s worth (or several, if you accede to the reincarnation conceit) of philosophical observations.

I have read this book, and the sequel, archy’s life of mehitabel, which was also softly rotting away in the dark confines of the guest room, oh, about ninety billion times. I can recite large chunks of it. I blame it for my continuing complete inability to make a proper line break – the breaks in the archy poems are hopelessly random, lending a breathlessness to their brevity as the eye falls down the page like a lead balloon. When I first read the book, the illustrations by George Herriman interested me enough – particularly the weird, three-dimensional moon beneath which mehitabel is “pelted with cast-off shoon”  – that I did some research in the reference section of the local library and learned all about Krazy Kat via microfiche, well before handsome Fantagraphics reprints became available.

I have found used copies of these books in shops and gifted them to friends; I even picked up some first edition hardbacks. But it’s the paperback from the guest room – with its foxed paper and dinged-up cover, that if you borrow, you MUST RETURN. Lest I haunt you, like the camel of which archy speaks in one of his poems, comedy and gravity all at a spin – “and the spirit of/a camel/ in the midnight gloom/can be so very/cheerless/as it wanders/round the room”

  1. Richard Allen permalink
    April 19, 2011 \pm\30 5:35 pm 5:35 pm

    An outrageously great book.

  2. Amy Holman permalink*
    April 20, 2011 \am\30 1:34 am 1:34 am

    never read it, have heard the title, must now–

  3. Rachel Thorson permalink
    April 20, 2011 \pm\30 7:19 pm 7:19 pm

    Yes! Please take good care of it. The smell of the pages is part of the reading experience.

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