Last post, I wrote about memory in Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at a few more pages in Radtke’s book. Specifically, I want to look at the ways we remember the past, what gets privileged and what gets forgotten. These moments point to one of the themes of Radtke’s book, the ephemeral and fleeting nature of our very existence.

Throughout her text, Radkte brings panels and images back, calling upon us as readers to think about these previous moments. We either hold these moments in our minds or we physically flip back through the book to find the images and texts. One of these moments comes early on in the text when Radtke’s uncle Dan asks her, “Do you want to see some magic?” Radtke responds skeptically, “Magic isn’t real, Uncle Dan.”

The next two pages shows Radtke and Dan going outside and catching fireflies. The panels are wordless except for one where Dan tells Radtke, “Look over there” while they peer through the bushes. The sequence begins by showing Dan, flashlight in hand, leading Radtke into the night. Both Dan and Radtke are in silhouette. Before we see the fireflies, we see Radtke’s open-mouthed and wide-eyed expression as she stares in amazement at the field. Then, we see the field covered in luminescent lights. The next panel shows Radtke walking amongst the fireflies in the field before we see panels where she grabs some and places them in a Mason jar.

These panels set up, along with the rest of the prefatory chapter, Radtke’s relationship with Dan and the loss that she will feel when he passes away. Along with this, they also set up the theme of the passage of time and the fleeting nature of existence. Later, Radtke relates the story of her ancestor, Adele Briese, and the Peshtigo fire. After she relates the story to Mary, she tells her friend, “Yeah, but even if it’s true, does that actually mean anything?” What does Adele’s story mean? Who has constructed it at this moment? Is Radtke’s retelling “real”?

She goes on to contemplate about what may have happened if Peshtigo did not burn down: “I was also preoccupied by what would’ve happened if the fire hadn’t. If that meant Peshtigo could’ve kept growing and become a city like Minneapolis or Detroit, and how different my childhood would’ve been as a result.” The phrasing of Radtke’s first sentence is interesting because she leaves off the town’s destruction. Syntactically, this leaves the sentence kind of open ended. We know that the fire destroyed the town and that that is the reference; however, the fire could’ve done something else as well.

Immediately after this, Radtke recalls the field with the fireflies. We see two similar panels, apart from the background, of Dan asking her about magic and Radtke’s response. The next four panels mirror the previous ones, except that Dan and Radtke in the first panel are climbing stairs. In the panel where he says, “Look over there,” a door is in the background, not the leaves and trees of the field. In the panel that would depict the field, we see a city skyline, and in the next panel, we see Radtke walking on the roof towards the skyline. What if Peshtigo had the opportunity to grow? Would it look like this instead of the fields that Radkte played in during her childhood?

The events that occur shape the world, as we know. These events continue on without us, and no matter how hard we try to construct the events, working to create, as Radtke puts it, some form of permanence, we can never truly succeed. Talking about the mining town of Gilmore, Radtke juxtaposes images of the museum in Gilmore and images of miners. She writes that people lived there, they worked, they existed. In her journey, she learned about them, and she that that “[t]o know what they were . . . meant [she’d] given them something. Something like permanence.” As she looked through photos and listened to stories, this is what she thought. However, she asks, “But what is permanence?”

That question is at the core of Radtke’s journey. That existential question of our existence and mortality runs throughout Imagine Wanting Only This, and it culminates in the final few pages. Radtke ends the book with five pages that work to answer the question, “What is permanence?” The first page shows the exterior of an apartment building, and inside we see people living their lives: watching tv, drinking coffee, on the fire escape. The narration reads, “War comes, or quakes or wind or water; industry leaves.” Essentially, this change, nothing lasts forever.

The next page contains four panels, all depicting common household items such as a lamp, kettle, shoes, and a bag. The images are lighter, almost as if they are fading away into the ether. Radtke writes, “It doesn’t matter that your feet are touching the ground they’re touching now.” Everything will go away. The carpet will come up. The concrete will crack. Nothing will remain but decay, which the next page shows, the same apartment building, but this time in decay.

The final three panels of the book move outwards from the ocean to space to a full page image that looks like something abstract but that also looks like clouds hovering over mountains. The narration asks two questions over the first two panels: “Who knows which pieces will matter? Who knows what will be significant when we have all moved on to whatever is waiting or not waiting?” Here, Radtke points to the ways that the past crumbles into ruin. The ocean washes away things that matter and things that don’t. The image of space corresponds to what we don’t know, specifically what happens after we die.

The final narration on the abstract page reads, “You will have touched nothing on the earth.” This line caused one to student to respond, “That’s so morbid.” It is, in some ways, but it is also truthful. When we think about the past, we try to control it. We construct it. We form it to fit our own lives, views, and experiences. What we construct is never “real,” whatever “real” is. As well, the assertions that we “will have touched nothing on the earth” causes us to think about the fact that we do not exist forever. We are not immutable.

Consider the past. I have not done ancestral research. Right now, as far back as I remember is my great grandmother on my paternal grandmother’s side. When I do research, I will discover more. I do not know how far back I can or will go. However, I know that when I research and discover my ancestors, I will discover my “real” ancestors. There will be parts that are factual, yes, but I will bring my experiences and thoughts into the conversation, constructing a new form out of the facts left behind. In this manner, they “touched nothing on earth” because they are not “real.”

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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