Jan Stein

The clinical manifestations of bipolar I increase in the springtime

(listen to the poem, read by the author)

I project ghosts on the screen of the sidewalk.
There’s a woman in a long blue coat following me.

I stop to snap photos of daffodils in February. She
has followed me before. She stops, starts only when

I move again. My mind skips time as stones
on still water, lifts rocks to find her shiny cold eyes,

even teeth, her soundless face etched in daylight.
She follows slow and fast, keeping pace, keeping

watch. I can’t tell if she means harm. I can tell
she doesn’t mean harm. I know she is not real,

I know that spring comes and heats me every year.
I want to kiss and conquer, become invincible,

there is laughter in the trees that falls like bells
and crowns me. The trees themselves begin to bud,

their greening answering a call from my palms.
I fall victim to the spring. I create the spring.

I braid filaments of light into unblinking phantoms.
Does she mean harm? I forget she is my mind-child

when she runs and I run faster, her short legs comically
fast. It’s easy to forget that spring always finds me, catches

me, pins me breathless. I breathe life into the lifeless,
tell myself stories that become, for a moment, real.

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In praise of constant motion

(listen to the poem, read by the author)

I’ve never been able to hold still. I can approximate stillness like a painter approximates a subject in the underpainting, but I can never build colors right to make the calm and shadow, to draw my breath soft, slow, steady, to claim a heartbeat unhurried. The thing with stillness is that it has an edge to it. It’s shaped, framed, an easel waiting for a body to be mounted and held taut, captured. The ability to suspend motion is to be painted.

My skin is a dressing gown, silken and blown in the wind. A fluff caught in my hair. Feathers everywhere. A peek of leg, bare as milk. It’s one moment I am hiking and the next I am lying on my belly in the grass, digging in the dirt, relocating earthworms or photographing the smallest fungi. It’s wondering when we’ll speak again. It’s colors exploding from pen to canvas, lines of glitter gold rimming my eyes, a song sung in the dark.

Look here. There’s a mirror on the wall. Inside is a person who looks like me, but she has mastered stillness. She doesn’t exist unless she is observed. Me, I thrum my fingertips, count the muscles in my leg one by one, tense and release, pull in my belly, draw a deep breath and hold it, daring the edge. I twist my hair around one finger. I’ll hold your hand, trace your fingers. Just, see me. I’m here whether you observe me or not, so please. Tell me a story. I want to listen, to memorize the shape of your syllables. Your lips hold oh a moment too long, your tongue falls to catch eh and e, lift them in a cup, your jaw drops when you say this ache breaks us, draws forward when you say what I want is now.

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We are, if nothing else, explorers

(listen to the poem, read by the author)

What if we approach our bodies as the ocean,
handle each other’s bodies with tenderness,
with wonder. The exploration of the horizon–
at sea, it is so far, there is so much territory
to discover. So much untouched, so much
worthy of reverence, imagination, of play.
Where my tongue meets the salt of your skin
at the base of your spine is a hollowed-out shell–
I can hear the entire ocean singing as you suck
your breath through teeth, the need on your lips.
What swims in each of us, what laughter bubbles
when we fall to pillows exhausted like puppies
at the end of a joyful day. When your thumb
is in my mouth, your eyes shine like scales
flashing through the currents, I wrap over you
and around you, I make you rise and fall,
while all around us, the sky aches to touch
every inch of our wanting, the places we connect
the holiest of temples, hunger the truest thing.

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(listen to the poem, read by the author)

When I can’t see you, I can’t remember your face.
I know the way your face makes me feel, tight knot,
giddy, sucked in breath, how your eyes change colors,
like the mood ring pressed in my thighs on a bus,
the flat gem shifting from blue to brightest green.
My thighs have always been my center of warmth.
I lost that ring in the forest climbing trees. I climbed
far longer than most girls I knew, read books on branches,
carved out loneliness. When someone loses something
they ask me where it went. I always know. Algorithms
of behaviors unwind like frayed wire, I follow the leads.
How do those I love move through the world?
We are predictable creatures. Mapping thought processes
is powerful. Knowing when to laugh, to hide, to keep still,
when to slide close and speak low enough to draw you in.
I would sit in a tree for hours until my tailbone split.
Today, I never hide in trees or under docks. I unfold
paper fortune tellers to see what’s under the one,
the six, the seven. My skin holds the memory of you.
It held the memory of you before we even touched.
What I can’t see doesn’t become less real to me – I know
when the wind blows hard against the back of your neck,
you take a deep breath and feel your blood flow harder,
and I am there in that moment – in that inhalation, we share
the light. The way I feel your hand before I feel your hand.
I don’t need to see your face to know you are beautiful.
I’ve mapped you. I know your bones are laced with hunger.

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It is 5:30 am and

(listen to the poem, read by the author)

the birds will not fucking go back
to sleep. Let the blanket consume me

feet first. The hand on my hip heavy.
A sweet smell, linens and wax,

rose water and chlorine
like the sea, salted and satisfied.

The cat by my head is twitching.
What do cats dream of with no word

for failure or what if, what if?
Sunrise slides downward, settling

on my brow as though anointed.
Don’t anoint me, nothing I’ve done

is worth your benediction.
And there’s coffee to be made,

everyone always so hungry,
what do I dream of when I can’t

remember? Laurels on my tongue,
eating the light, red stone in my eye,

unzip the bag and out tumbles teeth?
Or is it the smell of skin never touched,

my hair a fractal fanned on a new
stomach, hummingbird swell darts

from inside, outbursts of sunlight
a face hovering over my face, breath

and hands grabbing and so hot.
The taste of everything, everything.

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About the Author

Jen Stein is a writer, artist, editor, and educator in Fairfax, Virginia. Her art and writing are informed by her experiences with advocacy and activism surrounding the politics of the body, disability, and mental health. She has published and upcoming work with Anti-Heroin Chic, Atticus Review, Porkbelly Press, Whale Road Review, Menacing Hedge, West Trestle Review, Nonbinary Review, and Stirring, and has been assistant editor at Rogue Agent for eight years. You can find her on Instagram @jensteinpoetry, on bluesky @dexlira.bsky.social, and on Twitter @dexlira.