Book Review

Megan Webster’s Bipolar Express, which draws upon the poet’s experiences as a mother with a bipolar son, rewards more than one reading. The dedication “For Elgan, and all who swing from pole to pole, and for the relatives and friends who care for them” makes clear the book’s focus. Bipolar Express is divided into three parts, each of which is grounded by a representative poem designating that section. As the author herself describes the book's structure, “The first section of the book was inspired by my son's illness. The short second section was inspired by the homeless mentally troubled, and the third section came from experiences with a bipolar significant other.”

“Full Moon,” the first and largest section of the book opens with two poems, “The Day You Are Due” and “Signs,” which makes it seem as though this will be a chronological journey from birth through adulthood. However, in the third poem, “Love Poem,” the lines

Here are your medications, take them please
This is my ultimatum to you dear son
Its out of love I’m asking you to leave

signal an abrupt shift to quasi-adulthood.

From this point on the poems themselves “swing from pole to pole.” It is as though the diversity of poetic techniques and points of view mirror her son’s inability to settle into a state of mind with which he is really comfortable.

“Call me Ishmael,” a multi-layered poem that transcends its potentially cute title, attempts to locate the problem. In the first chapter of the work to which the title alludes, Melville’s narrator says, “when my hypos get such an upper hand on me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. It is my substitute for pistol and ball.” Webster finds herself in Nantucket when her son, too, has taken to sea at the mercy of uncontrollable urges, but in his case it is for stealing a boat. Webster winds up in a bed and breakfast – perhaps the Spouter Inn – where she spies a copy of Moby Dick on the shelf. Unfortunately, Webster’s son appears to be more akin to Ahab or Job than Ishmael:

I see my son at fourteen
caught in the tale of the white whale.
Now caught in the belly of the
whale – Nantucket Jail,

first of many his demons will hurl him to

Throughout the first section of the book Webster, her husband and a crew of friends and family chase her son through a series of adventures almost as daunting as Ahab’s. He eventually turns up in “The Barnstable County House of Corrections,” “Beth Israel’s Psychiatric Ward” and in visions of various towns along the California coast.

Despite its diversity, Bipolar Express is held together by a number of techniques. One is the use of italics throughout the book to indicate the weaving of actual quotes from real life into the poems in the way that one might use a thread of contrasting color or texture in a pattern to create a sense of unity in diversity. Another technique is that of repetition as when lines manic for five months/living on the street?” from “Father Side's (1)” are repeated (minus the question mark) later in “Father's Side (2): ” and lines like “hi-jacked boat” reappear.

One of the nicer, unstated connections occurs between “Arms and Nose Tethered” and “Mood Bound.” In the former, she “summons a Buddhist monk” into her hospital room to help relieve her from anxiety and internal bleeding:

  She closes her eyes,
listens to her breath, chants

Om Ah Hum   Om Ah Hum    Om Ah  Hum

 until her head empties
 until light bathes her mind, her body –
 until peace rings in her ears.

Near the end of the book with “Mood Bound” she employs a tanka-like cinquain to convey a similar achievement of peace.

Bench lunch
at Mission Bay,
watching seagulls squawk by
cold ocean dance and wave. Today
she smiles

Another nice linkage is made between “Love Poem,” (cited above) and “Eruption,” in the final section. Both depict similar situations, ones in which Webster feels that she just can not deal anymore with instability of living with someone who is bipolar. “Love Poem” is a villanelle whose unctuous first line “It’s out of love I’m asking you to leave” reflects the pretense of the “tough love” approach so popular in the latter part of the twentieth century. “Eruption,” as the title implies, is brutally unpretentious:

and suddenly I braked, flipped

out of the driver’s seat and yelled    get out
and beat him with my fists,
spat in his face and screamed.

Coming near the end of the book, as it does, the reader no longer has to be convinced that the poet has plenty of reason for her feelings.

No reader, however, needs any knowledge of poetic techniques to appreciate what Webster has to say about the struggles of raising a son diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Poem after poem clearly depicts these struggles.

In “Quantum Leap:”

The third medication flips
him into the air
thoughts racing
like a Ferrari
with no chance of braking.

In “Full Moon:”

Your lithium, I yell
as he bounces toward the door.

Lithium, he barks, was screwing up my head
I flushed that shit a week ago
and you better quit saying I’m bipolar
that’s only a label you
and that crazy doctor stuck on me

And again in “Missing:”

The police find him
wandering on the roof of a condo
at two a. m., his shirt
smudged, hair uncombed
three-day stubble
moon eyes jumping

Just as chilling as her son’s behavior is the treatment he receives at the hands of both the correctional system and the medical establishment. Near the end of the first section of the book Webster describes a brief respite of peace as she speaks to her son – now an adult - over the phone. Knowing that such peace is only tentative at best she says:

“My heart purses…
I let my ears rest
on the distant peal of birds

the yells, the laughter
of his children.

The second section of the book, “When The Rains Came,” contains only three poems, all of which depict homeless men with psychiatric disabilities. While these poems deal with questions of social responsibility and no direct reference to Webster’s son is made, such a connection can never be far from the reader’s mind.

“Labor Day,” the third part of the book shifts the focus slightly from depicting the experiences of others who are bipolar to a greater emphasis on Webster’s own reactions. Though “Eruption” and “Enough” show the poet at the end of her rope, the book concludes with words which are as close to contentment as the poet can allow herself:

And you my love, back on

lithium track, do not scream or
grimace at the mayo-soaked sandwiches
clapped together in Sunday rush

but flush them down
with cooled coffee as if that’s exactly how you liked them.

Then you swing your spare arm
around my neck, slap
a mustard kiss on my lips.

I chortle, fling my mind
into high gear –
will your mood last.

It is a postmodern ending for a life which simply does not allow for definitive answers.

Prior to its publication by Finishing Line Press in 2006, Bipolar Express was awarded the 2004 San Diego Book Award for Best Unpublished Chapbook. It is not hard to understand why. On the first reading, one is held by the sheer force of the experiences that Webster describes in her poems. The second time around, the reader begins to pay attention to the techniques the poet uses that lift her writing above mere catharsis and into poetry. Both are excellent reasons for reading the book. Along with Ona Gritz’s Left Standing, Megan Webster’s Bipolar Express represent two books of disability related poetry, published in Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices Series. For those two books alone, their website deserves a visit. Bipolar Express is also available directly from the author at or from