The Medical Phials

written by


« Reload image


On page 31 of the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, the author says of the field slaves that "They would sometimes sing using the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone..." In keeping with this tradition, I have chosen the lyric mode for the following staves despite their occasionally somewhat somber subject matter.

Jack Mellender


Behold, all is not

just the futility of a mortal fate -

merely outrageous fortune's anguish -

for God has created the saintly Doctor!

And Lo, the learned physician

brings a tape for the typing

to one of his faithful transcriptionists,

the sniffling, hunched, 300-pound Mildred,

swathed in her threadbare Republican coat,

numbly clicking her greasy keyboard,

greenly aglow in the monitor light,

sitting at one of the tiny wood desks

where she and her countless cohorts are cramped

in the cellar of a modern medical center

to squat in a cold dank windowless room

under a crackling fluorescent hum,

to be zombified by a drawer-full of pills

graciously prescribed for her

by the gentle, the learned, compassionate doctor.

What tale is dumped in her unwitting ears,

what Latin phonemes of Freudian jargon,

what sordid saga pours out of her fingers?

Al was a soldier, endured the late war,

learned to take orders, care nothing for pain,

neither his own nor what he caused others -

his is the story the doctor has dictated,

Al was the man on the analyst's couch.

Out of the Army, Al'd set up in business,

back in the eighties when Yuppies took over -

unionized shops then in large part were out-sourced,

office staffs down-sized, jobs sent to agencies,

wages were halved and all benefits cut.

(All who protested were swiftly locked up -

men were aplenty, unprincipled, honor-less,

men to build jails, or wear badges and guns,

lunatics newly arrived from the battlefield.)

Alan, it seems, had a recurring dream

which petrified him three nights a week:

he's at the payroll one Friday night late

when suddenly CRASH! - his door's kicked inward -

'n' there in the splinters stands spiral-eyed Jacques -

he who for years had been Al's docile typist,

'til only last year he'd been scheduled for home-work,

brought in his lap-top for memory upgrade,

telling Al's engineers, "Burglars broke in,

jambed up my floppy-port, I couldn't download.

Ten years of manuscripts live on my C-drive,

just don't erase them when adding your programs.

Maybe the prospect of working alone

addled poor Jacques 'til his wits went askew,

maybe the decades transcribing harsh prose

of pain 'n' disease cracked his poor poet's heart.

Anyway, soon he was given to muttering,

Evil, creepy, rotton people,

Ev'rybody should attack one -

Quacks and soldiers in a heap'll

Rot - 'n' who would mourn to lack one?

Two days of this. Al summoned Jacques

to inner office meeting - 'twas

a hot June morning. 'N' there was youthful

'super, Millie, who was to move down in rank

as she moved up in age and weight. There too

was bull-neck Joe, Security, ol' Army pal of Al's.

In brief, Al notifies then Jacques

that drive which held his manuscripts

was missing - stolen, seemingly -

when thieves broke in a few days back -

and for his rude vituperations

Jacques was now to be let go,

sans job, sans poems, sans sev'rance pay,

sans unemployment benefits!

Jacques went berserk - him Joe subdued,

'n dragged him off to whacko ward,

where they had recently resumed,

(despite proscribing plebiscite),

the practice of shock therapy.

'Twas one year since these obsequies

when Al's bad dream began its run:

Jacques' wraith, blue-templed, glare a-spin,

this sheaf of verse in hand,

comes crashing through Al's door,

his late-night calculations to disturb

by reading these weird words:

The Medical Phials

Note: This is all that remains of patient's

Medical Files, who absconded with the moiety

when he left against medical advice. It consists

in a portion of his Psychiatric Chart, i.e., an

Occupational Therapy "Writing Assignment." The

patient was asked to describe, (addressing his

girl friend, another clerk in the Transcription

Unit where this therapy took place), the events

leading up to his incarceration on 5150 - before

he was brought in by Sergeant James Smith.

Further inquires may be addressed to:

St. Lorca's Psychiatric Infirmary

for Veterans of Domestic Rebellion

Attn: Medical Records

“Is there any reason why after all these difficulties we should be subjected in this particular humiliating manner.” from “Into the Shandy Westerness”

To William Carlos Williams By Kenneth Rexroth

Some future things I wish

I'll call "I-would's" or "I'd's" -

Like win so sweet a dish,

hopes taken oft for rides -

but sometimes new euphoria

bode her best-dreamt utopia.

Some future things I plan

I'll call "I-will's" or "I'll's,"

selecting verbs a man

resolves on with kind wiles

to activate the maybe strange,

but braver, objects he'd arrange.

Since "make you," once of "I'd's,"

when willed, occurred no end,

in joy's recall it bides

and "I'll's" is "be your Friend."

Since "I'll's" erewhile was "swim two miles,"

let's say no more now's "swim tomb" "I'll's."

We swam not in pool sports

nor sulfur hot spring's cure,

but in-out facing ports

of sunken sepulcher -

Oh we would no trips trans-crypt shun,

and let no death slow transcription.

Who says pity must rue

guilt, being thus rung dry?

Our empathy is due

to everyone: but why

not save more time for needs of you,

and give more to the healthy too?

Since graves cannot contain

us, who's distracted by

farthest limit of pain?

Weak pain, with death, must die -

their pity yet remains intact

who haven't for compassion lacked.

The only thing is that -

it's not just time they rob

who sport a boss's hat:

what arrogance to fob

so very simplistic a job

on such as us, once pulled's our fob,

These doctors cannot be

concerned with much but selves -

sure not Humanity -

to strap such sterling elves

by fingers, feet and ears so late

before these screens that radiate.

I know I seem to grouse -

my fate many expect -

but when, around the house

reclining, I reflect

how cheaply we are all made glad,

I've got to feel a little bad.

But still, keep up your hopes -

for prob'ly soon one day

the man who too long mopes

like this again just may

go blithely mad like ancient bards -

take on the bosses, or their guards!

(O physician's minion,

self-styled "Security,"

I've grown of this opinion:

If you - although, like me,

their slave - once saw that I'd lost it,

and from the source of all their shit

I'd striven to exact

an over-long delayed

but just revenge, you'd act

as though of you I'd made

an enemy - or as though you'd

these docs with sudden charms endued.

Though sometimes minds that hum

about in Wizard Season

enrapt with ease become,

judge foolish all but reason,

and then confront our bodies' ills

with wildly analytic wills -

yet others, joys bewitch -

delight in combination;

to dream new worlds they itch,

replete with toleration -

to turn receptive openness

towards opposites' forgivingness.

Guard, suppliant to gods

of Force, enamored with

their courage, even odds

I give your kin and kith -

true hearts and minds most real

more hurt than help your powers feel.

Of gunsels charging, then -

to ambush, from the rear,

outnumbered, unarmed men -

I beard a private fear

at any lone, foolhardy whim -

though you can't love Patrolman Jim.

And though I'll teach the quack

some day, we'll brave the pigs -

lets hotter passions' smack

taste here - start learning jigs -

lest our perturbed asides too gripe

from poems to dancing girls who type.)

One's frisking's epic free-

whereof, danseuse, I fall

as short as some of bravery

that equally helps all -

let them and me at last confess:

You more than any do - with less -

who listen, static'ly,

abstracting folks' disease -

glissade so concretely

then healthy us to please -

your carefree sensuosity

exalts corporeality....

I had a dream that we

were working early one

mid-Saturday, though free

that afternoon at 1:00 -

at harried call some surgeon made

you over to the files sashayed.

You did not seem to see

my patience fin'ly spent;

you smiled indulgently,

disdained admonishment -

I pulled the Sony tape machine

out of my smashed computer screen!

Arm leaning on a breast-

high file-card cabinet,

your fingertips caressed

the handles in it set.

At that, the office scene descried

is suddenly transmogrified:

The cab'net where you leant

becomes a mossy stump;

up half-stripped bark there bent

his way from out a clump

of green wastebasket turning shrub

a squirrel your careful fingers rub.

Typewritten letter white

that lies on that white desk -

its wriggling letters quite

transform, to arabesque

of fuzzy caterpillars turn,

flee 'cross a boulder, and us spurn.

A coat-rack branches sprouts

when we at it look up;

from one desk-rock there spouts

a font with no let-up,

where writhing dazzle disappears

along with bowl of goldfish tears.

The office walls are gone;

computer bank becomes

low scarp of forest lawn,

the honeybee there hums.

The keyboard patter's antic frogs

that leap away on hollow logs.

The printers disappear.

Woodpeckers in the trees

stop eating, leave the ear

to fly away in vee's

across the August morning sky

the ceiling fades to by and by.

The surfaces of file,

of desks, then soften, scored

in long thin strips that, while

turn leaf, peal outward toward

fluorescent sunbeams - rippled grass

blades curl on hillocks where we pass.

Your squirrel bolts, then you,

through spinney glen, by tor,

up rill of gleeful blue

go caprioling o'er

the mead - then, stumbling, I - who chance

have none to run like you can dance.

Across the copse we fly.

I don't catch up until....

Upon the beach you lie,

and taken have your fill

of bitter walnuts o'er the swirl

of lakey seiche - and fed your squir'l.

(Though memory can't find

the place we came upon,

five dreams recur to mind,

the times I stumbled on

this shore of undulating sands -

approaching, then, from northern lands.)

But now your eyes me fix

in charms of magic sleep,

of slumber number six

you bring from somewhere deep -

and me recall unwitting find

of vengeance quests time out of mind.

(For Moera's brother's fall,

soft-healed, serpent-bitten,

she gave the reptile all

the death Tylon was smitten

with; ice-heart, its scaly mate,

both snake and man recalled from fate.)

Now that we're here, awake,

on shore of satin sands

that rings this olive lake,

I gently part our hands,

and say, "I have a tale for you

explaining what I'm here to do.

When, intuition's thing,

I came - but who knows how? -

of logic's stock, to sing -

for friendship's sake to bow

to reason only insofar

as needs to prove I too could star

in mathematic thought -

that done, resuming art,

the nearest way I sought

from family to part -

to world of somewhat worse regrets,

and Manichean martinets.

My fondness for the word

they put to their own use -

to typing their absurd

reports - and this abuse

I'd counter, spending each hour free

in college, reading poetry.

I gave to honor less

than half what I'd vowed, won

tuition, (though I guess

I knew, once learning's done,

I would again some wilds embrace,

and courage once more thought replace).

Since weekday morning, each,

now doctors had me type,

my academic reach

could not quite con the hype

for A's - on my Professor's desk

my B brain pulsated grotesque.

Enrapt and frustrate years -

'til final loans ran out,

and came true my worst fears:

full forty hours, about -

now freedom inspiration knows -

each week's usurped by medicos....

You turn to me and bid,

"Get back inside your trance!

What you recalled you did,

reminded by my dance,

I now convoke you do once more:

the doctor's corpse retrieve, restore!

For here once temblor razed

a ridge, then bade this lake

her finger thrust where glazed-

eyed dead vacation take,

(as none could have been over wary

when that quake drowned their cemetery)."

I say, "I'll realize

this ancient dream of mine;

as soon as I am wise,

give each successive line

or act your spells show my charmed will -

wait here as from yon rock I spill."

"You wait," was your reply.

"I'm in the dream this time,

remember?" Then with sly

aplomb, as up I climb,

you say you'll trust me not to hoot

at your pink underwear swimsuit.

Through wat'ry arch we flew

in tomb of old Doc Jones,

from vault his casket drew,

up floated with his bones,

it swam to shore, up beach it slid,

broke rusty locks, turned back its lid.

As quickly you arise,

back over to the rock

from which we dove, your eyes

gone briefly wide with shock -

"Yes, get our clothes," I say -

and to my work I turn away.

"Less sunken of physique,

recurrent friend. No nose.

Left eye rolled down your cheek -

but we know it's all pose!

Your long dream's secrets you won't keep:

You robbed my time, I'll steal your sleep."

With this, I stand and walk

to where you wait. "They're soon

addressing trees, who talk

to dead men," you then croon.

"No, girl - my shirt, the phial - instead,

this one's stay's fleeting 'mongst the dead.

These shards are glaucus grass

with which Tylus, deprived

by poison snake, alas,

of life, was then revived

by Moera - for, when she thus found

her brother laid out on the ground

She'd giant Damsen crush

the culprit serpent - then

she saw another rush

in, leave, return again -

this grass, or "Flower of Zeus" to lay

on its mate - saw both wind away.

The myths proceed one way:

the revenant may be

a general, or may

be mad young hunter, he

who shuns desire - to save whom takes

a mortal doc or god, the grass, two snakes."

My glaucus blades I pour

on this cadaver cold.

It gradual but sure

congealing we behold,

decay's reverse speed quickly up.

We see an old man, just ere cup

of life's drained, lying there;

one's corpse who's newly dead

at long life's close - thin hair

adorns its pale head -

but sweeter scents the breezes wreathe -

and then the body starts to breathe.

The saur'an looking thing,

a skein of wrinkles small,

commences shuddering,

with wail that might appall

companions left beyond the pale -

then raspingly begins to rail:

"Argh, not this time - but stay,

fast melting dream of bliss! -

yet no, joy's stol'n away....

Again I wake to this -

Must you begrudge me death's escape

'cause once, in life, you typed my tape?"

"That once I - twenty years,

each week, five days your drudge

was eight hours made appears

quite ample cause to grudge -

though crowds of thralls you thus abuse.

You claim compassion - what a ruse!

This little witch here, though,

has danced my wits away.

A dream I seem to know

I've had before today

she charms me to enact - which all,

at Lethe's draught, fled your recall.

This phial I here produce

gold-glist'ning in the sun

is concentrated juice,

fruit Hyperborean,

from Greeks Beyond-the-North-Wind land.

Drink this to quick-reverse time's sand."

Then in an arm I grip

His ancient head; he can't

resist as o'er his lip

the liquor I decant.

"Watch him," I say. "This won't long last -

slow Merlin youthened, he more fast,

(who took my years for back-

ward copying pain's tale -

I felt like an old hack.

So now I do not fail

to take his death, to make him feel

as old - then back up years to reel!)"

Slow peel the films of time

away, his flesh then firms;

the skin, as in his prime

new-smoothening, affirms

his eyes' bright glow, the vibrant air

in young Doc Jones' now thick dark hair.

Unlike my other dreams,

this one - 'tis strange - won't slake

my thirst for justice; seems

less willed now - that, to take

revenge for which I'm feeling loath -

retarding my artistic growth.

"I won't let you, the while

regressing, disappear.

Instead, of one more phial

now taste, no more to fear

the years. A dozen score ago

The Comte de St.-Germain, you know,

from India did this

elixir bring a friend

of Casanova. Kiss

a drop. There. Thus we end

all aging's backward change - or for-.

Look twenty-seven evermore!"

Out reaches Doc Jones' hand

and grips the coffin's side.

He vaults onto the sand,

intones with haughty pride,

"Though always doctor bosses nude

have artists in their undies rued,

yet we have ev'ry right -

who long forwent the joys

of friendship, freedom, night,

our books our only toys -

to ask the help, howe're chagrined,

of characters less disciplined."

"I've cracked as many tomes

as you - they do not make

me want a slave, those poems -

not they made me back take

your life in erstwhile vengeance dreams -

(in this make that seem too extreme)."

I watch him gape at you

there breathing in your bra;

your smile I take in too,

its secretive hurrah.

Your eyes flash glints of knowing glee

from languorous opacity.

"Remembrance thus returns,"

the doctor then observes.

"Though body newly burns,

with life - but this times swerves -

and final phial him he'd revive

gives one who'd death-darts the first five? -

Yet you can't know with what

delight I welcomed death's

return when, your last hot

indignant words and breaths

of signs determined being done,

you sped my years with your dart gun.

A life's not long enough

to find out much at all -

I'd barely learned the stuff

to start - and then the call

of strange mortality. Who'd guess

I'd wake - but now for good, though - yes?"

"For good," I then aver.

"My rage's mania

is rapt away by her....

To Hyperborea,

of whose fruits one's juice these darts tip,

I nevermore shall make the trip.

And you will have again -

though always looking young -

the same life-span as when,

six decades past, you hung

your shingle out for all to see:

Josiah Alvin Jones, M.D."

He says, "I'll live then, be

in time enough, for real -

as one whom none who see

think older than I feel -

long-sating mind in body new -

with second chance to know, to do!

One thing I would, though, change:

when last I was this age

I couldn't soon arrange

the fancy to engage

of earthy sylph with luscious face -

my Prof. touched not on social grace."

Into the doctor's eyes

you gaze, his wistful grin

upon - and, bending, rise

with em'rald phial thin

from pocket in your sandy skirt.

Your voice seems both to sing and flirt:

"You hardly need have been

reluctant, though, since there

are many nymphs whose yen

at any time's to share

their transports sweet with demigod

who's trod on toes in marble shod.

However jaded men,

there ever minxes are

to bring them love again,

or point them out their star -

when pain's great foe seems duty-bound,

delight lurks somewhere near around.

One can't retake a risk

one long ago declined

to face, but you might whisk

all sadness from your mind

with this borage tea that I've brought,

which can from health food stores be bought,

plus one ingredient

I've added, Moly called,

whose pow'rs Odysseus bent

to save mates once enthralled

by Circe when" - but Doc now drinks -

"They'd been turned swine by that god-minx."

As falls upon the sand

from Doc Jones' fingers splay

the empty tube, he pans

his stare twixt us; fast play

across his features signs of fear -

then great relief, then weary cheer.

His eyes take us both in -

"It seems that I've been blind,'

he notes with sheepish grin,

"To remedies you find

in fantasy - would do my part

that Medicine become true art."

You laugh, to me confess:

"I put that final phial

inside your shirt, no less

your vengeance to beguile,

and idyll turn your fancy dread,

than keep this doctor from the dead -

whence you have him up-woke

ere this - what, five full times? -

life's promise made and promise broke

when he'd grown young? These crimes

you now know you can't justify

by saying your job made you wry.

Although the dictator

have accent thick, be rushed,

be drunk, format ignore -

or manners - why be flushed

with rage? His patient's second try

is worth my help, who can't dance by -

therefore should merit yours,

who only lose your mind -

which, now that it occurs

to me, I've helped you find:

this morning's coffee did prepare

with waters known to banish care,

cure madness - from a well

in Scotland on an isle

in Loch Marie. They quell

the "fevered brain," and I'll

show you a poem by Whittier

concerning them - their magic's sure.

Then up the bank you dance

and glide out of our sight.

I toss the Doc my pants,

pick up our clothes - so light

his stride as we run after you

to where your spell you then undo,

the country golden-green

turn back to hospital

transcription office scene -

except you give a call

and from the hall your squirrel's nose

pokes in - he curls up at Doc's toes.

You take from your desk drawer

two phials, then up one raise.

To me you amble o'er

with mesmerizing gaze.

You lick your lips a wetter red,

pronounce, "With this we'll put to bed

your wild distraction's cause,

the nightmares that can come

when working students pause

in love, take refuge from

delight in chasing new desire -

choose joy's ignition, not her fire.

Be free of all bad dreams,

impervious to harm -

take tea that herein gleams,

and from the sun's still warm.

Of herb called Ephialtion made,

it came to Hercules' great aid

in helping gods defeat

attacking giants grim

with serpents' tails for feet.

Our doctor, though - let him

be first his treatment to conclude."

You smile, I wait - not to be rude.

Your final phial you hand

him, then you intimate,

"Your wonder's odds expand:

with grass sprinkled of late

your were revived. It's in this tea -

now drink down Immortality!

"Yes, drink," I echo then,

"And anodyne all grief

and be a god 'mongst men,

for I have found relief," -

from jacket pocket dart-gun get,

it start to throw in wastebasket -

from inner office bursts

then Sergeant Jim - gun out,

With fatal aim he worsts

your Agent d'Art. About

I'm spun, to fall on my own gun.

Its dart speeds out, doc Jones' left bun

to pierce. Then first his face

grows strangely trouble-free.

Old features, though, replace

the new - in minutes three

the seams of eighty years etch o'er

his skin - he falls dead on the floor.

"That grimace smile turns,"

you say. I nod, but tire

of sleep. My laughter thins

to yawn. When I expire

I change to wraith of bluish smoke

who silent laugh at secret joke.

Whereon a walk you take

across Doc's form - bring here

his phial, which didn't break.

But first you turn to face the leer

of that gendarme there in the door

to tell him this: "I too abhor

the mad computercide,

and yet he's nothing more:

Of old age Doc Jones died

full twenty years before."

Then over me his phial you shake

and I from dreams of death awake.

© Jack-Mellender