Four poems by Shirley Stephenson

Partial Toll Map

This arrow marks the path from frenzy

to drawl, fragments flung skyward

before drifting back. The emerald is the park,

the whorl of footprints in ash, helicopter

searchlights panning rooftop to bedroom.

Over here is the thunderstorm that sent

everyone to the street in pajamas.

The blue line is our train, stalled within

the river. This is the route that ran steady

to slow drip, pre to post. The choked

beltway. The spikes are men with guns

riding garbage trucks, subway cars.

The lumen widens to accept more.

The lightning bolt is the stairwell you took

when the call came. This is where

we veered. Saint Christopher poised

like an action hero on the dashboard.

The bare space is the smell of our city

burning, empty gas tanks. The wings

denote the airport where he never

landed. The flicker is the candle waiting,

waiting. The lights we strung. This is where

we tried so hard. Here’s the cistern,

gavel of rain. Sympathy’s hushed hallways,

too many children carrying flowers,

snapshots. This is where it got so heavy

we had to cut the line. A September

harbor with no boats. That’s the bridge

where I first loved you. This is what

held us up before it all collapsed,

the senseless legend. This is where

we pay, where we don’t breeze through.

Family Room

Shovels rasp on snow-glint, a neighbor’s breath bent to passage. Candescence scuffs the kettle as John reaches across me for salt, something in parchment. The pattern of good hands. George says if this was rain, we might be drowned by now. Every flurry needs a crystal lattice. In 1954 James Elam proved expired air was enough to maintain oxygenation. Liberty to fly. The dog surveys the room, eternally vigilant. Everyone paddocked, he settles until a siren whirls past and his howl rises in unison. We all join in. We always do, the four of us, chins tilted to the moon in solidarity. I want to fasten them to me. It’s not random, this overcast. I want to see us not in contrast to the woman I led from the trauma bay to the family room last night. Hours oscillate into shifts of each, all. Everyone had a different version, how the child was dragged through the jagged sun. How the snowbanks and ice made it impossible. Jane points at me, delighted. You howled so hard you’ve almost cried, she says. We stow the boots and wool. They have a kit for making your own snow globe. The manikin’s flaccid face was modeled after a young woman submerged in the Seine. Rescue Anne was everyone’s first opportunity to practice resuscitation. I can’t tell them how the woman begged us to try again, held my hand against her chest as she rocked, as if my hand were the broken thing, as if I were the one. The collection awaits its weather. I know the storm will resume and they will sleep better for its haven, the dog twitchy with dreams beside them. After goodbye, my mother always stands at the window and waves until we let go the sightline. Once I returned unannounced with the spare key and found her weeping. She said, when you leave, all the nests tumble. I can’t agree that the moon resembles a man on the roof with a flashlight. I can’t let us capsize. Jane flings her arms around me. The unwound clock observes its scripture. The instructions read: affix your diorama to the inside of a lid. This is the shaping and reshaping. Add glitter to a jar of oil and crushed shells. I flinch at the slammed drawer. Visibility decreases. We flood the sky, all the little houses awash as the fragments billow into one province of blizzards.

Fall Response

Perched above the Valley of the Mills,

I envision my scarf preceding me

into this fern-lush canyon cut

from ancient erosions. My arms,

distrustful of their hands’ grip

on railing, prickle and brace.

As a child, I never knew this.

Unafraid, I leaned over balconies,

evaded my mother on bridges

and boats, where she buckled me

into life vests, lassoed my waist

with safety lines. I say unafraid

meaning, I felt an impulse

of wingbone, believed I could

stay afloat on the acres of windwater,

glide on the sink-rise of air’s surface.

Here, bottle green rock flora tumble

from windows. Streams, still faithful

to the gorge but cloistered from sea,

throw mist. I bend to trace their path

but my pulse surges. Two decades ago,

the first fear awoke when an elevator

dropped eight floors, then shuddered

to stop. Alone, I fell to my knees,

pried the doors to find myself

caught by cables and stop clamps.

Suspended, believing, I called

for help, an appeal later revived

in a chapel’s azure hush before

my shifts in the ER, where each night

another harbor emptied. Fires unlit.

Helena taught me how to prepare.

It’s the only sacred act we do,

she said. This is what the family

remembers. And you, before falling

asleep. We had checklists. Stop

the saline. Dispose of strewn vials.

We wiped blood and feces,

called organ banks for harvest.

Once, a small gust of idle breath

moaned forth as I eased a tube

from a bolstered airway. Look up

to clear your eyes, Helena instructed.

Always keep your composure.

I protected the head with pillows

as I rolled the body, replacing

soiled linens, lifting arms

into clean gowns. I uncurled fingers

from bedrails and rosary beads,

coaxed eyelids. After the family left,

I zipped the bag. It was almost

tender, like a tucking in, until

I covered the face. I blamed

shiftwork for my tilting quiver

on escalators and train platforms.

I stood back but it never ceased,

this insoluble recoil on any ledge.

In the ravine, moss, holm oak,

and oleander obscure the abandoned

wheat and sawmills. In 2001,

a British tourist died here.

The path was slick, but he wanted

to photograph the ruins.

I picture his gasp and thrash

as a sail heaving, grasping

for catch. Then his gone-ness

clear from the twisted silence

on stone. I look an octave away

toward the foothills of sky,

sign of sun and moon as one,

but the glare stamps the image,

returns it to my closed eyes,

unbound and relentlessly bright.


Our cells grow tired wrestling ancient assailants. Mortar and shingle crumble. Tent pegs cling to buffeted ground as locusts unhinge joints, consume pulp like a river’s rise through mangrove. We need a fireproof casing, says the cargo pilot. Because you can’t tell what’s inside until it detonates. Bacteria resist and our potions lag like kite strings. Fuselage scatters over protected grasslands, the boggy pockets of skull, womb. We’re reviving the firing squad because injection is too slow. We’re sewing up the good eye so it isn’t lost. The tradeoffs are ceaseless. Headless amberjack rot on beaches as lasers scan parcels—what must be delivered now, what can wait in the vessel. Like a gallows’ floor, panels twitch back, dropping boxes into time zones. Starlings or bats? Without a bar code we can’t decide whether to take cover or hail the rush of wings. Engine failure can be accommodated, unless the pilot remains in a state of disbelief. Most prayers glide on one wing. The same defiant chaperon who calls the body home forgives it for breaking. The unsightly fish stink but now more kingfishers stand regal along the shore, their black mohawks fluttering in summer’s fetid breeze.

Author Bio

Shirley Stephenson is a poet and nurse practitioner working on Chicago’s west side. She has lived and worked throughout the US, and in Latin American, the Caribbean, and South Africa. She believes that engagement with the humanities sustains and reconnects us.


#resilience #intersection #interconnectedness

Image Credit

 Miotte, Pierre. Astronomy: an oval chart showing how different planets affect different parts of a man’s body. [1646]. Wellcome Library Collection. Accessed on November 1, 2020.