Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist

Program Notes: Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist (2017; words by Steven Heighton, music by James Rolfe)

Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist sets to music three poems from Steven Heighton’s 2016 book The Waking Comes Late: “Coronach, Post-Kandahar”; “Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist”; and “Humanitarian War Fugue”. The poems look through different lenses at Canadian Forces veterans returning from the Afghan war. I was drawn to them for their vivid portrayal of the traumas suffered by returning soldiers and those close to them. The poems address the men’s struggles with overwhelming emotions and stress, and in particular the difficulties that they face in a society that values masculine self-control and strength—a dilemma which becomes unbearably intense when those men must transition from violence to peace. The poems themselves reference musical elements, notably the coronach (a Scottish pipe tune mourning the dead) and the fugue, which are reflected in the music itself.

The connection of this concert to the 150th anniversary of Confederation offers a wonderfully apt context in which to acknowledge the contributions of soldiers to our country, as well as to give voice to the pain they experience at war and at home.

Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist was commissioned by Continuum Contemporary Music with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. My thanks to them, to Ryan Scott (Artistic Director, Continuum) and to Steven Heighton.

The poems: (© 2016 by Steven Heighton)


The damaged individual is invited to seek treatment, albeit at some future date
Lance-corporal, here— this comfort song, or (if prayer is the protocol you prefer) this prayer.
When you visit the clinic we’ll cook up a cure for your sadness and panic.
Meanwhile pills, meanwhile prayer.
Even to an atheist God’s the Omega of a shotgun’s business end.
The patient, still on a waiting list, suffers a major coronary, for which he is promptly treated
His ribcage we cracked and his heart we drew clear like a red, writhing newborn pulled from the rubble.
They said that in public his punchlining brilliance disguised desperation.
Take this, if you’re manic— come visit the clinic— we’ve an opening early next March.
Even to an atheist God’s the cold ordnance of a twelve-gauge applied to the heart.
In which an appointment, of kinds, is finally found for our patient
At the wake (closed casket)
the piper was drunk
but managed a coronach.

The Calvados by lamplight is an oily gold, a liquor pressed from bullion. Taste the essence of Norman summers—the fruit-sweetening sun, salt-bearing breezes of the English Channel, flotillas of cloud cooling the coastline. Proustian autumns, mellow and rich; the windless weeks of the apple harvest. Your snifter, brimming with brandy, exhales the scent of ancient orchards.
With your patient you are driving a dog-sled over a frozen sea under a sky trembling with a red aurora, blood pouring down a dark face. Your patient yells and whips the team onward. A bitch is whelping as she runs, dropping raw, mouse-sized pups onto the ice. The other dogs scoop them up and swallow them without breaking pace. You hurtle north toward that sky and, you are certain, open water.
The drink’s mission is to italicize the effect of several dozen tranquillizers while masking their aftertaste. You arrange the Celestanox (7.5 mg) on the edge of your desk, in neat formation, like a cycle of birth control pills. This really ought to do it. You chase them with another full snifter and taste again those schoolboy summers at Grand-papa’s orchard near St-Valentin.
The ones coming back from the war are the worst. You listen and prescribe—rest cure, work cure, drugs. You’d rather not prescribe them but you must. Even dust degrades to finer dust. We find you slumped at your desk in a pool of your own fluids and we revive you, pump your stomach, and your body survives. Bodies are made to, minds not so much. The ones that come back from the war, etcetera. Even dust falls to finer dust.
Your patient grew up in northern Quebec, son of a white trapper and Inuit mother. At twenty, Pete saw the war as a way out. And so it was. Up there everyone knew how to use a shotgun, he said, because of the fucking bears, though he never had to kill one. He did waste a guy in Panjwai with his C7 and it wasn’t like online. Wasn’t even a man—wouldn’t a man over there have a beard?
“Yes, I fear so.” Doctor, feel but don’t overfeel.
Above all, don’t get too involved! You can care but you must not love! Up north, when a big tide went out, they could crawl and then walk under the ice and it was alcohol blue and they could hear the sea in the far off and Sorels treading above. Pete kept coming back to that, curled like a glove in his chair. Many came home like him, but not all kept shotguns ready. When the tide returns, man, you gotta move fast!
Doctor, I order you not to love.

We killed with the best of intentions. The goals that we died for were sound. The notions we killed for were sterling, our motives the sort that one mentions, frankly, with pride.
Quit scrupling, quibbling, lying down and lay this down: Bad guys by the graveful we gunned down so girls, little girls by the classful, could go to school. Girls, too, busing to school, we slew so girls could go to school unharmed, in error we slew them, with better intentions, bad eggs however we harmed to win hearts, warm cockles, gain guts and livers and limbs and minds with decent intentions, good eggs we even armed (only good eggs armed)—the rest we smashed, truncated, atomized until the doves among us buckled, seldom seeing dead men un-dismantled, while heads of this and that kept touting, hawking our cause like crack, our crystal intentions, motives one mentions especially when aim is less than exact and friendlies get fried . . .
With downsized intentions we killed and we strafed and we mortared and missiled and mined, sniped too, droned too, till we wilted to haunts in OSI wards, nightly wading tarns and tar-ponds incarnadine, and they dosed and discharged and forsook us, but on we kept killing with credible reasons in a lush neural loop of gibbering visions from hovering gunships, maniacally hooting, culling the groundlings with motives forgotten to a playlist of metal eternally cycling . . .
Of course, looking back, you would like to reboot and start over, but there is no over— this spraying and shredding forever recursive— this Gatling drum always ample with ammo— and papa and papa our weapons keep bleating— a ceaseless returning and endless rehearsing— you’re killing with the best of with the best of them killing with the best of with the best of them, killing,