Mehitabel and her Kittens, with a bit of vocabulary

Punished for having been a vers libre poet in his previous life…

I’m pretty sure that Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel was the only poetry that I ever read as a kid.  La trame: Archy is a cockroach–a cockroach who has been reincarnated as such as punishment for having been a vers libre poet in his previous life.  (As a child, that didn’t seem terribly bizarre to me–I wasn’t clear on what vers libre was, but I was in the process of receiving a pretty good Jewish religious education in a very traditional Ashkenazic community, and in such communities it’s not uncommon to believe in reincarnation.)  Archy now lives in a newspaper office, where at night he types out messages to Don Marquis (“boss”), a columnist for the New York Evening Sun at the time.  Being a cockroach and all, he has to type by jumping onto one key at a time; since capital letters require you to hold down the Shift key simultaneously, he is not physically capable of producing them.  Hence “boss,” rather than “Boss.”  The Mehitabel in this poem from 1927 is his closest friend, a more-than-a-little-disreputable cat.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page for an explanation of the words to hamper, to be shy on, and tom cat.

Mehitabel and her kittens

Don Marquis, 1927

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned


English notes

to hamper: “to moderate or limit the effect or full exercise of” (Merriam-Webster).  As a noun, a hamper is a receptacle for dirty clothes.  Why?  Who the fuck knows…

How it was used in the poem:

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens

to be shy on: to not have very much of, perhaps to not have enough of, something.  A common usage: to be shy on cash.  Example: I can’t go out for dinner with you–I’m a little shy on cash.  How it was used in the poem:

it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them

tom cat: a male cat.  Also, just tom.  A related expression: to tom-cat around, which is a verb for a guy that means to be having sex with a lot of women.  How it was used in the poem:

it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom

A bonus for the reader who has made it this far: some examples of use of the verb to tomcat around.

  • There are many advice books for women on how to manipulate the male psyche. They suggest how to get him to propose, to be more faithful or simply to be better in bed. But a new book for men takes the opposite approach, counseling the male animal on how to tomcat around shamelessly, while avoiding commitments.  (Braden Kell, writing for the New York Post)
  • Venitucci claims Mechanic, a state-licensed social worker, was equally determined to get him and other men in a group session to tomcat around. “For 10 years, I was faithful. Then I just caved in and had an affair, and [Mechanic] said there was nothing wrong with that,” Venitucci said. (Kathianne Boniello and Brad Hamilton, writing for the New York Post–no link, sorry)
  • Ray, you know I’m right. I don’t really care who he fucks, as long as his tomcating around doesn’t harm our reputation. (M.J. Natali, Adara)



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