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Alexander and his Doctor, about 1648-9, Eustache Le Sueur

According to classical anecdote, Alexander the Great suffered from mysterious maladies and from his own mystique. No one dared to treat him for fear that a bad outcome would doom the would-be healer to certain persecution by Alexander’s wildly solicitous minions. Finally, Phillip, Alexander’s physician, frustrated by the young king’s decline, offered care in the form of a salubrious potion. But a general had already impugned Philip in a letter to Alexander, which claimed Philip to be acting seditiously on behalf of Alexander’s Persian enemies, and not to be trusted. Despite this warning, Alexander boldly drank the medicine, as he did so, handing the letter to Philip to read.

In the painting, Philip stands above a recumbent Alexander, as the doctor-patient relationship would demand. But Alexander’s broad chest and raised eyes reveal his power, while Philip’s stooped posture and frown expose the frailty of his position. The painting reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the vital duality of the relationship, each risking himself, proffering his full commitment to the other. Here the physician assumes the role of servant rather than patriarch, though his experience and wisdom are evident.

Kid’s bangs blending with tall grass, we watched
Them cross the lot, some stumbling already, brush
Aside the door, entering a place that wanted
No part of us. What went on in there?
We wondered and wished we could know and better
Than know. The red slab swung wide then slammed,
And like the little match girl’s lit up reverie
We glimpsed them, wide backs inert as stone, each bent
Like Rodin’s Thinker, mesmerized by a glass.
We giggled like girls with our Vienna voices,
Like bells at an even greater distance
And Sibby shifted on his groaning high chair
And shouted wide mouthed and generous as a man
Could afford to be with adversaries that small.
What went on in there? The fact was we had
The facts, and they made no sense like the sounds
From a piano when you bang on it
Because you’ve heard the music pour and hate
That you can’t make it. Once in the lull before
The factories emptied he played baseball cards
By our rules, matching color or team,
Winner take all, Sibby like a human
Cerberus, one thick-necked dog face enough.
The only time he let us in the place
Hadn’t opened, a barren marvel, the mopped
Still spotted floor light flung itself across,
The damp bar filling the room like that table
In the butcher shop where they divvied up
What we would never have recognized
In the soft white paper our mothers brought home.
That was the summer he flew to Saigon,
The summer at a clam bake in Maine
I sipped my father’s beer, because he let me
And because I wanted to more than anything,
Took the bitter plunge, just so I could say I did.

                                                          —David Moolten

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