Hannah Stephenson, “How to Put This, Exactly”

How to Put This, Exactly (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

Who is here in this body,
and who was here when the body was invented
by birth. Wailing baby, you will one day
walk in the snow alone, as an adult,
you will come to love those who are now
strangers to you, there will be numbers in your life
and cats and laundry. The bravest thing you will do
will happen one day, and then that day will end,
and here come the years all rushing in at you.
Sometimes we know this and sometimes we don’t.

Comment:

I’ll admit it. When the word “soul” first came up studying ancient thought, I winced. It seemed already loaded with religion and traditionalism and pseudoscience. It felt like a way of telling me what to think.

But in order to take older works seriously, you do have to examine the question of soul, and it does reveal itself in ways a fairly secular concept. It ties to an inquiry driving ancient and medieval science: How do we recognize life, exactly? The question twists and turns until we get to ourselves. The soul seems to be responsible for our motion as well as our rationality. How exactly those two things add up, well.

“How to Put This, Exactly” is a beautiful statement of soul. “Who is here in this body, and who was here when the body was invented by birth.” We know you will be or should be something. That’s not our arbitrary expectation, or even our hopes. That’s the fact of you. You always were there, present with us. The soul does exist, and is somewhat alien from the body.

We adults can wonder at the cosmos unveiling itself before us at a child’s birth, but can we say anything to the child about what we feel? Besides pinching cheeks and making kissy faces? We can say something about how life unfolds, how a human being, perhaps, comes to know himself:

Wailing baby, you will one day
walk in the snow alone, as an adult,
you will come to love those who are now
strangers to you, there will be numbers in your life
and cats and laundry.

From walking in the snow and all its implications – loneliness, dealing with adversity – Stephenson moves to loving and learning to be comfortable (“numbers,” “cats,” “laundry”). It feels like a prophecy declaring happiness within reach. What stands out for me is a tension between loving and “numbers.” The rest of the poem speaks to this tension. Does the length of time we live define us, or something else? Usually we talk about virtues being central to our identity, but Stephenson couches this carefully:

The bravest thing you will do
will happen one day, and then that day will end,
and here come the years all rushing in at you.

Again, the drama of this poem is that we’re trying to tell the baby about our euphoria. We’ve said everyday experience can involve love and comfort: you can love and be comfortable, maybe even be loved. What is clear now is that the child at some point has to recognize the importance of these things. Something amazingly brave will be done – one is part of a miracle or something that should be a miracle – and the day doesn’t stop. There’s not one pause, no honor calling you a saint, no “achievement unlocked.” Just like the moment a parent imagines an infant a man in full, there will be a moment where you’ve feel you’ve seen it all – maybe you do know it all – and the virtue you displayed is meaningful only for you.

The “bravest thing you will do” is the catalyst for appreciating life for what it is. The virtue pulls us back to “numbers,” but more importantly “cats and laundry.” In a way, being brave enough to live is life. The whole poem is a prayer of sorts: “Sometimes we know this and sometimes we don’t.” It doesn’t really matter if the kid knows to reflect to find what’s important. As long as she takes the trust given her and tries with it, she’ll learn.