Around the middle of 2009, a few months after I moved to Melbourne, I was on the way or about to go to the weekly poetry group at Sam Langer’s house in Station Street, North Carlton. He was feeling sick and had texted me to ask if I could get him some cold and flu tablets from the chemist on Lygon Street on my way there. As I remember it, the pharmacist approached me to ask what I was looking for and I said I was after Codral Linctus. She seemed just-perceptibly startled at this but at the same time totally cool: ‘They took that off the shelves years ago.’ Then, as if I might need further convincing, became suddenly defiant: ‘You can go to any chemist in Melbourne and they won’t sell you that!’ I remember that this second statement seemed unecessary given she’d just told me – or so I thought – that the stuff wasn’t made anymore. Thinking about it afterwards, it was even slightly suspicion-inducing: why did she feel the need to emphasise this, indeed, to invoke this limit case: ‘any chemist in Melbourne’? Was there a cache somewhere? Did ‘off the shelves’ mean that you could still get it, but it was just no longer ‘over the counter’? I realised then – actually, almost as soon as I’d said it – that I was folded into a time-wrinkle, effected by the John Forbes poems I’d been re-reading that afternoon. Specifically, the poem ‘A Dream’, which concerns Frank O’Hara, the city of London, several attempts to purchase Actifed CC cough mixture, and something to do with the murky correspondences between fiscal inflation, nostalgia, death, and writing poetry. I corrected myself, asked for the cold and flu tablets, which were provided, paid and left.
I think I have read this poem almost as if it were a dream of my own. My encounter with the pharmacist seemed to be an acting-out of part of the poem, without my knowing at the time that I was doing so, nor the circumstances which had made such an acting out plausible or weirdly logical. Why had I said ‘Codral Linctus’ – words I hadn’t heard or thought about for years, not since ads for cough mixture when I was a kid? Why had this happened as I was about to attend a poetry night at Station Street, a few doors up from the last house John Forbes lived in? The coincidences were interesting and confusing; trying to write what happened has a similar feeling to trying to recount a dream, but without the excuse of its being a dream. Something in the telling of Forbes’ dream, ‘A Dream’, encourages the feeling in the reader of complicity. Partly this is because Forbes, the character in, and recounter of, the dream, leaves it as unsure as to what the dream signifies or symbolises as the reader does. That is, the ‘old bloke’ pharmacist’s explanation of how he avoids inflation, unlike the more expensive place down the road, leaves Forbes, ‘baffled but knowing that he’s right’, which is exactly how we seem to feel, leaving the poem. Like a dream, when reading the telling of this dream we seem to be inside a world of which only the action taking place is visible.
The logic of the chemist/pharmacy for the purposes of dream and waking life is as that which both displays and conceals the objects of desire. The lower grades are arrayed on the shelves, needing only money to be obtained, the higher grades behind the high office, in the dispensary, require something more than that (I recall the 80s/90s movie Drugstore Cowboy explores this problem). In Australia access seems to be organised around the system of drugs which are in one of three categories: ‘over the counter’; not ‘over the counter’; ‘prescription’. Cough mixture, at least higher quality cough mixture of the 1980s, I suspect would have been in the second category, ‘not over the counter’, whereby the customer who would otherwise see it as his-her right to be able to take any product off the shelf, bring it to the counter, purchase it and have it wrapped in a brown paper bag if he-she wishes, is instead required to ask for their desired commodity to be brought down especially, allowing him-her thereby to be judged by the pharmacist and placed in the role of the needy supplicant, the drug addict (‘Oh you drug addicts live in a little world of your own’, the snooty pommy dream pharmacist tells the dream Forbes). Thus a strange space opens up in the logic of customer service: the business-entity wants the customer’s money, but at the same time maintains the authority, like a publican, to refuse service. To be allowed to buy the product, the customer must be judged as worthy: they must not be a drug addict, and their symptoms must be performed authentically. They must submit to their given role of good customer-child, being allowed the drugs (on condition) by the father-pharmacist-judge. The high office of the pharmacist resembles that of a judge’s. There is an illustrative Seinfeld ‘bit’ about this architectural aspect: Seinfeld exagerrates the raised position of the pharmacist and then switches roles to the customer, reaching up for the product being dangled, just out of reach, demonstrating the minaturizing/infantilising effect achieved. Forbes’ poem is less about this theatre of the transaction (‘point of sale’) than it is about the panic – and the skill and quick-thinking required – to get to the pharmacy (or the bottle shop) before closing time, and, once there, the problem of how much one can afford of what is required, and the question of how insulted, belittled or ‘observed’ one is prepared to be made to feel for buying it. Even though he can afford one bottle at the first pharmacy, the pharmacist’s slur has dream Forbes (brilliantly) change tack at the last minute. Like an old-timey gumshoe he says ‘Shove it, lady’ to the pharmacist, and races out to see if he can find another open chemist.
The one he finds is clearly, overly, signified as of the past: ‘It’s a very old-fashioned looking place with thin windows between carved Gothic frames.’ This chemist sells his cough mixture for 2.50 a bottle, and, when asked about this, he explains that he can sell it this cheaply because, unlike the woman down the road who charges 9.60, he doesn’t let inflation ‘get to him’.
How do you avoid it I ask & he says ‘The way to beat inflation is to live in the past.’ I ask him what he means & he says, ‘Anyone can do it. Look at Frank O’Hara – he was still writing good poems in 1976 & he’d been dead for ten years. It’s simple.’
‘Living in the past’ seems a familiar shorthand description for nostalgia. And the idea of Frank O’Hara still writing good poems ten years after he died might (‘simply’) be symbolic of the chronic largesse of his style and his oeuvre, that his poems seem to keep arriving, keep bringing fresh encounters despite being technically past their used by date, in a way that gathering his Collected Poems together surely facilitated rather than limited (i.e. contra Basil Bunting in the preface to his Complete Poems: ‘A man who collects his poems screws together the boards of his coffin.’) Part of the charm and disquieting oddness of this last part of the poem is that the example that the old man chemist gives to explain his statement apparently bears little relation to that statement, i.e. how is it Frank O’Hara writing good poems ten years after his death is an example of living in the past? Or is it that year in particular – 1976 (at a guess, ten years before the poem was written – given that the collection it’s from was published in 1988 – and, if so, the halfway point between O’Hara’s 1966 and his 1986) – that is the active ingredient, one that signifies Forbes as ‘still’ a young man, ‘still’ writing good poems (critically acclaimed first collection, Tropical Skiing, just out, etc. etc.)?
It is the confounding logic of this poem beneath its simple-seeming and appealing story-book surface that the different elements of it seem to fit together simply and invite piecing together, but defy actual explanation. Peter Porter noticed this story-book quality, referring to it (as I recall) as ‘The Search for the Original Cough Mixture’. Unlike most Forbes poems it is without the artifices of line breaks or couplets or stanza divisions. The only other dream poem of his I know, the elegy ‘lassu in cielo’ (‘my first dream of home / from Loughborough U’), though also strange, is quite different, more formally reduced and concise.
The process of nostalgia is simplifying and decontextusalising. To live in the past is to live in a kind of conditional state: melancholia, the refusal to let go of the external object of attachment. The poem is at least as much about value. Things were so much cheaper in the 70s! And those heavy cans of beer – how enormous they were! And the poem is self-consciously a dream, ‘A Dream’, such that we read it as a sincere attempt at telling, and are invited to interpret its dream-logic, and as Forbes’ own dream-work. The economic theory of inflation seems to have been mingling with the modulations that nostalgia effects on memory: as we recede further into the future, the object of memory becomes more colour-saturated with nostalgia as its exchange value seems to shrink – so as to seem available to us. There is something too about the logic of addiction mixed in with all of this.