Reading Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, I catch myself constantly moving back and forth within the text, never settling on one page or moving forward in a continuous motion. I find myself caught in, as Hilary Chute says when writing about Joe Sacco’s work, the “often awkward and time-consuming” rhythm, connecting back and forth across the pages the images and text that Radtke uses to address the fleeting nature of existence.
Throughout Imagine Wanting Only This, Radtke weaves together the various threads of her memoir to explore how we deal with loss, the passage of time, our identity, and our legacy. Two of the narratives that converge are the illness and passing of her Uncle Dan and Seth Thomas’ photographs that she and Andrew found in the cathedral in Gary, Indiana. Each of the threads focus on the fleetingness of life and the ways we remember both those close to us and those we did not even know. Each deals with the ways that connections form and the ways we engage with those memories.
When Dan goes in for heart surgery, Radtke depicts the procedure, even though she was not there. She depicts what she imagines happened in the operating room. She begins with a close-up of Dan’s chest opened up as she narrates, “I thought often about what it would be like to have your chest pulled open.” This image, in many ways, reminds me of a church altar with the medical apparatus constructing a sort of steeple of the skin and the organs serving as the altar. In this way, the panel recalls when Radtke entered the cathedral in Gary and found a Ziploc bag full of Seth’s photographs that his friends left there as a memorial.
The next panel shows a closeup of the surgeon’s hand inside the chest cavity. The next one shows the surgeons, from the patient’s point of view, as they hold utensils and work on the body. Another panel shows the patient’s torso and shoulder with monitors plugged up on his chest. The final panel shows the patient’s chest sewed up with monitoring devices on his chest. In each of these images, we do not know who the patient is. We connect the patient with Dan; however, Radtke makes it clear that she “never connected the image to [her] uncle directly.” She disassociates the operation with her uncle.
Radtke continues by stating, “His pain is something I have no concrete memory of considering.” Radtke’s assertion is nothing out of the ordinary. I recall family members passing and not considering their pain in the process. The removal of Dan from the operation is also something that occurs with Seth’s photographs. Radtke takes the photos from the cathedral and they follow her every time she moves.
In Italy, she takes the bag of photographs out. They had started leaking mold before her trip to Italy, and the mold only increased as time passed. In this sequence, she opens the drawer then opens the bag. In the panel where the bag opens, we do not see Radtke’s hands. All we see is the open bag, which resembles the the patient’s chest cavity from earlier, a photo sealed in the Ziploc bag. The photo shows someone’s hands, presumably Seth’s, and the photo is covered in mold. The next panel shows Radtke removing the photo and looking at it.
The final panel on the page shows Radkte’s hands holding a photo in a Ziploc bag. The photo shows Seth in what appears to be the cathedral. The mold covers portions of the photo, specifically his face. In the sequence, we do not see Seth. He becomes obscured in one panel by part of the bag and in the final panel by the mold covering his face. In this manner, the sequence mirrors Dan’s surgery. We do not see either individual in full. The defining facial characteristics either do not appear or they become obscured either by narration or mold. Like Dan, Seth becomes someone distant, someone that becomes a connection for Radtke, but again someone whose pain she does not necessarily consider.
A few years after Dan’s death, Radtke began researching “the inscrutable heart defect that threaded through [her] family.” During this section, she speaks with doctors about the illness, and after a page that shows a notebook with her notes, a Ziploc bag in the background, and what looks like the cathedral, she depicts a five page dream sequence that brings together Dan’s surgery and Seth’s photographs.
The wordless sequence begins with Radtke walking through moldy ruins in a hospital gown. Mold, throughout the text, plays an important symbol, engulfing everything around it. As she walks, she comes across a covered body on some steps. She uncovers the body, and it does not have eyes or a mouth. The lack of these features makes it semi-indistinguishable even though we know it is Dan.
She proceeds to grab a scalpel and open up the body’s chest. She places both hands on each side of the incision and pulls the skin apart. When she does this, she sees the cathedral. The next panel shows a view from inside the chest cavity as we look at Radtke peering inside. The movement to this perspective begins the clear link between Dan and Seth, between the ways that Radtke connects with both of them and the ways that she constructs their memories.
After a close up of the cathedral in the chest cavity, Radtke presents us with a full page of the cathedral. On the left side, Dan points to something and asks, “What is that?” Dan and the word bubble appear sort of translucent, as apparitions, not tangible beings. This presentation aligns, of course, with the dreamlike nature of the sequence, but it also points to Dan’s passing and Radtke’s memories of him.
Radtke digs through the ruins and pulls out a Ziploc bag. Inside the bag is a heart. Four panels shows her holding the bag, and in each panel, the heart deteriorates. The last panel shows the heart shriveled and diseased. Here, Radtke’s memories of Dan, her memories of Seth, and her research into the “inscrutable heart defect” coalesce in her dream. They join together to highlight the transient nature of our existence and the ways that we disassociate ourselves from the pain of those we love.
We see Radtke dreaming about two deaths: one of a person she knew and loved and one of a person who she discovered amongst the ruins of an abandoned cathedral. She connects with both Dan and Seth, albeit in different ways, and they each highlight for her that what exists today will be gone tomorrow. The buildings and spaces we occupy are not forever. Ruins may remain, but the lives will pass away. The Ziploc bag may hold them, but still they deteriorate. It is the passage of time, the rotation of the planets. We cannot stop it. All we can do is live.
Next post, I will look at some more of Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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