Hannah Stephenson, “Fever”

Fever (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

Fever

I have set myself adrift on a river.
I have built the river.

Because I have not slept
I think it is raining
from the upper sky to the middle sky

but never reaching me.

If the self were
symptom,

an inner tube inflated,

where is the mouth
that let the rubber nozzle
drink from its breath.

I wrench something from the ground
but say
look what the world is bringing to me.

Comment:

Hannah Stephenson’s website is composed of “poems inspired by images.” The work she calls “Fever” was originally titled “Good Odds.” I think I understand the visual joke that inspired the artist’s own title. You’ll notice that most sets of shapes in the artwork have a counterpart elsewhere in the work. The triangle that reminds of beams of light at the right corresponds with a small triangle at the center; it looks like there are rays with rounded ends at the upper center and the bottom left that radiate from a central point. It feels like the piece is a sly comment on expectations. If your eyes start at one part, you find something similar later, but it is reduced, fragmented, or enlarged. Of course, one does not know exactly what happened from one shape to the next; the whole is more jumbled than continuous.

Onto the poem. Stephenson sees the art as fevered. “I have set myself adrift on a river. / I have built the river” – if you build, build carefully, end up with a jumble: well, you’re adrift.

At first, building is the problem. It requires every bit of one’s focus (“I have not slept”) and a view of what is completed from above or below (seeing the rain as entirely beyond one). Unfortunately, you’re the one building; nothing’s been fully formed yet. So what does this mean for self-construction? It’s like knowing you’re a river but only seeing the water as rain, knowing it in its partiality and at a distance. You’re doing and making but never growing.

“If the self were symptom:” the speaker tries to change the problem and fails. However, she does make a certain progress. The poem before “if the self were symptom” shows “building” to have a peculiar strength. It unifies cause and effect; the building results in a fevered, fragmented self, but it is still a self. Isolating the self – calling it a symptom – means trying to find another who caused it, another sort of “self.” This is, on its face, a failure. It’s like saying there’s another person within us who’s responsible for free will.

One can attempt recourse to the Other as the breathy cause of an inflated tube, but the progress of this part of the poem is its focus on the counterfactual. We look at the self as a symptom and a cause. Hence, the image of the speaker floating upon the self. She is the river and upon the river. There is no building, but floating. The river is built, and she’s looking at a self.

Can this work? Is the fever broken?

I wrench something from the ground
but say
look what the world is bringing to me.

This last stanza gives us a human being who is not stranded, not floating, but grounded. Complete enough to “wrench something from the ground.” We’re back at the beginning, it seems: didn’t she build a river? Didn’t this lead before to getting divorced from it, lost upon it?

This time, she speaks and marks the action. She doesn’t just expect her building and floating to give visible, accessible testament. The wrenching and the speaking are at a remove from a unity of action and self. They are not the same as the inflating or the floating, either: the self is not a symptom. It is a cause, but a peculiar one. If you emphasize your agency, you exaggerate not just your power but also your understanding of yourself. To say “look what the world is bringing to me” as opposed to “I wrench” is to see yourself as part of a process and see that process as recognizing you. This understanding may also fail. But this poem was about beginnings, and this approach seems a surer bet.

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