“Nin’s Poem: A Bipolar Memoir”: Excerpt from a poem by Shelby Stephenson

SHELBY STEPHENSON

 

“Two together!”

 

Two together!  You come south − or I go north,

day comes dark − or dark comes night,

we live by yearning for blue days new,

all days, common marvels, miraculous as drizzle becoming snow.

 

In the beginning you seemed far away, my love,

leaning out the second-story window at 12 Clarendon,

and I had come from the farm, a working one,

and you stuck your head out and said, “I’ll be right down.”

 

Hypomania?

 

Was it summer ’61?

I worked at a French camp for children of the French Railroad Employees.

After a month Em and I went to Paris for a week.

We had a sandwich at a café, decided to go to the museum.

I asked two Frenchmen at the counter − in French − for directions:

“Do you speak English?  We’ll give you a ride!”

“Sammy” drove us to the museum and they stayed with us!

Then Sammy drove us to a place for something to drink.

Sammy’s friend wanted out.

Sammy drove us to the ballet:  he slid right up against me. 

We got scared − my coat was locked in his car.

He said, “You’ll have to give me cab-fare.”

He drove us to our “hotel,” really a brothel.

We had a double bed.

At breakfast next day Sammy mugged us through the glass out front.

 

Across the road lies Greatgreatgrandpap George.

I’ve traced the path that brought him there.

And you cut out research you would not believe,

the detail of one who “owned” slaves.

I should put “grave” in quotes too.

Truth is − you can’t own anything.

 

The Law and I fail each other (my story)

and I have a “blind” date with Suzy Winter in D. C.

and meet her dad who works for Long Lines, A.T. & T.

And I get a job in White Plains, working all up and down Route 17,

that southern tier in New York State

and I call Chip Davis, a friend from Buffalo (in school with me at Carolina)

and I need a date, as they say,

and I drive up from Olean to see Chip,

meet his friend, Marn, Nin’s sister, at a debutante party.

I dance with Marnie and ask if she has any sisters.

Marnie mentions Linda.

It’s midnight and Chip calls Linda (Nin)

and tells her about “Shelby Stephenson who wants a date for tomorrow night.”

Nin hesitates; then he tells her that Shelby is from out-of-town −

and something about “law school.”

Nin thinks he might be interesting, says, Yes.

When Chip and I arrive at 12 Clarendon Place

we see Linda hanging out a third floor window.

 

She shouts − “Be careful of wet paint.”

 

For now, you, the one of my dreams, the shine in your voice,

call to the terrier, “Want to go for a walk with Mummy?”

And you two are off.

You are full of wellness and strong as can be.

 

“Ever since I started walking I’m able to clean − this Fantastic Orange!

I mention it − and no one’s ever heard of it.”

 

“If I do crash I’ll have a clean, organized place.

Put the colander there; put the bread bowl here.

Never know if I’ll use the square pans or not.”

 

“Can’t we have a few good days?

When you begin to feel well − it’s like a wedding.”

                                                                                               

Say I got lost in the clatter of pots.

Teach me to wait.

 

“It’s been two years since we’ve had a vacation.

We don’t go anywhere.

We have no social life because I have to drag you wherever we go.

You don’t want to go any place because you don’t feel comfortable around people.”

 

I thought you were angry or sad or sarcastic.

I was completely helpless!

Once, I paged you at the grocery store.

I couldn’t see you and thought you had left me.

 

The laughter you fill in slips and thongs

dancing with buttons and bows

binding light through the windows.

 

For decades we’d drive from Southern Pines to Beckley,

spend the night at Mountain Top Campground

and wheel the snow in drifts at the Farm in Boston, near Springville.

You fluff your hair sideways and stride straight out of the terrace-door,

cutting a swath the air cannot chill, the snowmobilers shaking their boots and beards

and whooping and wallowing in their hollers.

 

Your breasts stick out like robed firs lining the path to the Fairy Glen.

 

I can hardly warm a dish; if I were in a cafeteria line I wouldn’t know what food to take. 

 

Panic sits up and yawns.

 

There were times in the night when you

would wake up and feel panic,

unable to catch your breath.

 

Little baby steps up the hill and two back down.

 

I have seen the martins fledge and the bluebirds, too;

all of a sudden, they are off for a flight as definite as the Blue Moon

 

we saw last night sailing full through wisps, steady and high,

coming and going, unafraid, no worry or care,

 

the old house dancing,

the cabaret’s band playing a Spanish two-step soft and low.

 

Cold Buffalo winters:  February, 1940,

your father (old Buffalo), Hamilton, Yale, U. B,

 

your mother − Massachusetts, Newton Center, Vassar −

your middle-name adorning the Letchworth relation on your father’s side,

 

your mother’s holding the sorrowful joy of the House of Collens, for Charles,

the architect (designed the Riverside Church, Cloisters, Union Theological).

 

Your family lived on Ashland Avenue, Gates Circle, shaped like a train,

a long and narrow hallway, little rooms like cabooses, a deck to lie out on,

 

sunshine in breakthroughs the light of your life,

the darkness lit in recall,

 

comparing your early years with mine: your live-in maid,

the image of the war splashing the papers

 

(I remember FDR’s photo in The N & O)

and history’s gesture sledding in on ice-shale,

 

bringing T in March to you two years and one month after you were born,

then Marnie, three years later:

 

Hope was born when I was eleven in ’51.

The Ashland house was too small, though pretty, you said,

 

its yellow-framed two-stories,

a prospect dwelling in my mind for Christmases,

 

the kids’ shouts in war-time,

the snow-covered streets of the neighborhood,

 

snow-ball fights,

and the high, cool, free events without clutter:

 

Mary Lou bit your finger and you rang her doorbell to tell her mother

and then her mother bit Mary Lou’s finger and said, “Now you know how it feels.”

 

The organ-grinder waltzed down the street in summertime: 

he had a monkey on a string:

 

the ice-cream man would come, his bells ringing sound, light, smells:

 

I started Elmwood Franklin Nursery at five;

when I was seven Dad said

 

You can go to Campus School at Buffalo State Teacher’s (third through eighth grades)

and I loved it: it was public, not like Buffalo Seminary,

my private school from the ninth through the twelfth:

 

I think of the horse I loved − Sunshine:  that was ’51:

he was covered with mud:  cost $40.00, died on Valentine’s day, 1952:

Dad “rented” two horses for summer,

Prince, a chestnut bay, and King, a palomino:

the man said he could “take” the horses for the summer

if he would care for a large wound in King’s stomach from a fall, trying to jump a fence:  

 

when I was twelve in ’52, we got tv: neighbors: the Rumseys, Chyrecks:

one day we were playing baseball and I got too hot:

Mum said, “Neenie, darling, take off your shirt” − I had breasts:

the mirror gave something back:

 

in the fifth I think I was the only one in class to learn

there were no napkins anywhere to help me

and Girl Scout Camp’s cot gave back what I did not want to hear or see,

 

the snickering and pointing from my cabin-mates, the flood of embarrassment:

the confused crushes on Boys, the Barn at the Farm inviting as the mirrors I primped:

 

Romance looked good as Lynn who got braces:

the spruce by the window quivered for picnics in March

 

off Emerling Road, where our dream of a place with a beautiful view came true: 

“Who owns this farm?”  “I do,” Mr. Spore said.

 

Soon calves on wobbly knees and crisp-footed horses romped in a new-mown meadow.

Children sang songs on a wagon loaded with hay.

 

Vee and I picked blackberries edging The Farm. 

Dad had the pond dug and tied a duck-decoy to the bottom −

you and I have caught many a sunfish there and fried them −

when we’d change our suits and press our bodies in the bubbles our skin kissed

we would wonder if someone would catch us before we could get back up the hill:

“Hellooooooooooooo.”

 

Dad got in the Christmas-tree Planting Business to help Boston (N. Y.) Conservation.

He was always planting trees.

 

Your farm originally had no running water, just one of those old-time waterpumps?

A tin tub rumbled in the shed not far from your home in the city

 

at 12 Clarendon Place:

your grandpa Collens (Bapa) appeared and said Your beams are rotten?

 

This was after a two-story addition had been finished without stairs.

Upstairs the Dormitory went up:  Bapa designed a little study?

 

Mum hired a blacksmith to forge special hardware −

she wanted an authentic colonial home.

 

Uncle Harold Olmsted designed a chimney with the wave of his hand:

it smoked every time you struck a match,

 

but it WAS beautiful

when we married 30 July 1966

he drew a sketch of our outdoor wedding and called it

an “Elizabethan Setting for an Elizabethan Wedding,

Love to Linda and Shelby from Grandpa O:

Lintemarho, Emerling Lane, Bostonshire, America.”

 

When you turned fifteen, stable and self-conscious, you began the network of moods, your depression already set,

though you did not know to know what invitations to football games would do to you:

 

I was lying back on the couch and I asked Johnny if he had ever felt down

and he said, Yes: What do you do, I said,

and he:  “Figure out what’s wrong and get rid of it”:

 

when one falls to pieces − far, far away, glands rage in places suspended in time;

gestures sweep positions for forgetting what happens when there is no line

and good and bad love you the same, as depression walks in,

follows understanding, as snow falls in the ryefield, memory’s score:

the heavens keep a symphony for the spirit left in temporal silences:

a little mania’s a good thing, don’t you think:

 

to roam in cool beginnings

the way, say, boys brag about their conquests

as if the first bed does not educate

but understands the door should be locked in case someone might come,

maybe the cook − relieving himself by the cabin-door:

just a summer job, the aftermath of one rubber slung across a room for denial,

 

in the streams, heaving their wings, the bloodsucking flies

toward the cowboy on the make,

 

the flutter of romance all summer long reality’s sputter:

I had my knapsack and my fluffy blue pajamas

 

when I worked at A-Bar-A, that dude ranch in Wyoming,

my parents proud of me for working;

 

other times I  headed the glee club at Buff Sem and arranged 

for the Harvard choir to come to Sem − I did all that:  and when they came, 

two of the choir slept upstairs:

 

I sold tickets to the concert to pay the way for the singers to come from Boston: 

I planned a dance, too, my math teacher at Sem was surprised,

since earlier that year in her class I was depressed:

 

my big achievements came when I was up: 

then I went to Bradford Junior College and could not get into the chorus:                           

neither could I get into the small singing group because I could not read music:

just as I was “up” at A-Bar-A, I went off with my cowboy and stayed overnight −

I was told I would be fired as Salad Girl if I strayed from the ranch again.

 

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam, where seldom is heard

encouraging words

and the sky’s unclouded all day:

when I was up I could do anything. 

 

My roommate at Bradford, Carol went to Europe the summer I went to A-Bar-A:

she married an art director: he had children, very wealthy, owned a gallery:

 

she has a good life; was my one friend at Bradford:

I learned to make myself come:  one night she heard me: 

 

she did not know what I was doing:

Carol’s friend had a big boat:

my cowboy went on the boat too:

 

I was depressed.

And she knew.

She told me she thought I should see a psychiatrist:

Carol and I were very close, even when I was depressed:

 

she introduced me to Doogy, a student at Brown:

he invited me for a ski weekend:  hands rub the body:  it’s like dining out:

Cabdriver, come on down to Greenleaf Hall!

Times take wrong turns:

necking becomes a carriage, a drive-in, a sway of gods and goddesses:

the last cold snowflake feels like a winter of snow:

 

I understood the “black” situation when I was at Columbia School of Social Work:

the girls in my group were black:

 

I was depressed: Mum and Dad came:  we went to see one of my teachers:

half, at least were black:  I remember that Mum and Dad were really surprised:

 

that was the time JFK was killed:  all this deepens frustration.

You were trying to study for statistics at Columbia?

 

I came out of the depression and sailed through my exams:  

when I was down I could not decide on craft-titles for my group-work:  

 

my supervisor told me not to use plaster: I did:

the children’s hands in plaster got all over the house:

 

he recommended that I leave school and get some help:

I was crushed, yet relieved:

 

the dean told me after two years, after I got help,

I could reapply and hopefully finish my degree:  

 

after that I got a job in Pittsburgh at the Jewish Home for the Aged: 

I was head of admissions:

 

I was feeling very well:

part of my job was to go through the unclaimed clothing of the deceased:

I found a bottle of whiskey and a belt:

we drank the whiskey and you wore the belt for years:

 

I came out of a down in June, ’66,

applied for a job at Vocational Rehabilitation, City of Pittsburgh:

 

Mr. Calson told me after my  interview,

“Oh, Miss Wilson, you do not hang your coat in the director’s office!”

 

There were no positions available

and I had to wait about three months before I was hired:

 

I was depressed when we married, 30 July 1966:

I had been calling to check on a client

who had been electrocuted and had brain-damage:

I was so depressed: his wife said,

“I don’t know why you are calling; I don’t appreciate it.”

 

Dr. Russell:  “Your ability to conceptualize is gone, isn’t it?”

When I would go see him I would see patients who were my clients: 

 

all gets jumbled up:  at Columbia, I stayed at Johnson Hall:

my classes were in the Andrew Carnegie House down in the city:

 

I had to take the subway and bus to get to my field-work at night:

roller coaster world: 

 

euphoria, heaviness, my spine tingling, legs running in a downpour,

back up, knees bent up under my chin until the pain would stop:

 

depression’s like an alarm that does not go off;

memory aches in rumpled underclothes and a flow of mental pain:

 

I heard the phrase, “physiological cyclical illness”

for the first time at the Lahey Clinic, 1964:

 

Fall, ’68, we left Pittsburgh for Madison, Wisconsin:

September 11, 1970, Jacob was born:  three months later I got depressed:

I stayed low until June, 1971,

 

when I had Electro Shock Therapy − three times −

Dr. Winston:  started lithium:  I came out of my depression for eight years:

I wonder if the shock therapy helped me last that long:

 

and somewhere in there I went to the Mayo Clinic, I think, searching for answers,

evaluations −

and meds, meds, meds:

 

the stumbling and falling:

Holly Hill Hospital, early January, 1983:

 

my meds were stopped for a week and I came out without having EST:

had nine years without a depression:

 

I went down, down, down in the early ’90s, lowest, I think, I’ve ever been:

worried about insurance payments, the price of pork-n-beans, every little thing:

 

broke my ankle in ’95, when I was “up,” hypomanic, and  on crutches for six months:  Dr. Andrews became my psychiatrist:

 

when we left Southern Pines in spring, ’96,

she referred me to Dr. B

 

who doctors me as you write this memoir-poem-prose-remembrance:

and oh the symptoms always become the same:

 

wound up and can’t relax, no energy;

waking at 5 o’clock a.m. −

 

scattered feelings, no concentration, can’t remember, can’t converse or conceptualize:

I feel retarded, staring at post-its, grocery lists:

 

across from where I am sitting and writing, I hear the rasp of a file in the darkness:

the sound drifts back and forth in that Valley of Despair

 

I am trying to find words for − the nothingness of conversations and the pounding heart −

I fell apart in front of one of my supervisors:

 

he said:  “You can’t even make up your mind whether to stay or go, can you?”

I left, wondering if I could even drive home.

I was a long way from the jet-stream feeling when I was up: 

                       

the hollow curvature of your spine swings a high way to climb,

until there is no string to hold on to, no string at all.

 

Shelby Stephenson’s Family Matters:  Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge.

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