Hannah Stephenson, “Painting”

Painting (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

Pull the vines away from the brick
Move the hair that obscures one eye

There is a thing we see and paint
can help to chase it

What is within green What is within
oil paint What is within the hand

In a vow, a search boat
In every hour of sleep, a dark box

Sing the way the artist does
since you will never hold

completely the thing you are sure
you almost see


We want to see more, to unearth something. The imperatives of the first stanza, “pull,” “move,” are the things we keep telling ourselves. There’s a funny thing about seeing well. Sometimes, you first start clearing up the fault in external objects (“vines away from the brick”) and then you’re moved back to your own sight (“the hair that obscures one eye”). How do you even know how to see – let alone what you want to see – if you haven’t been seeing properly from the start?

Seeing isn’t something we do as much as we try to do. “There is a thing we see” speaks to the vagueness of needing both images and reality. That paint helps to chase the thing shows we’re committed to the trying. We want to move.

Maybe we can capture an important bit of self-knowledge if we talk about our motion toward objects we create.

Hah. That movement is internal in the worst way. From examining a color (“green”) we move back to its material cause (“oil paint”) and then its effective cause (“hand”). We’re moving back to something, but the external world is splintering and the internal world only has consistency in darkness. “What is within the hand,” what prompted us to paint, is a “vow” we made. Oh great: what’s consistent for us is that we’re like a boat with a light on a dark sea, and that’s inside our heads when conscious. When unconscious, the head is a dark box.

So let’s give up on images for a second. (Btw, very roughly, h/t Nathaniel Cochran & Jacob Klein: Classically, there’s “being” and “image.” A being should have a corresponding image, but good luck matching those two up. What typically happens is that we talk about images and confuse one image for another. To simply put images together in the right categories – well, one might have to be a philosopher.) Let’s just sing. We all paint, and we’re not really painting other objects. Let’s sing ourselves, as it is ourselves we don’t hold completely, ourselves we’re almost seeing.