"I think not on my father;
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?”
–Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well
At the very beginning of Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, William Blake is on a train headed West to a place called Machine. He’s from Ohio, is without family, is parentless, wifeless, adrift. Or, if he has these things, we don’t know about it. We do learn, however, that he’s on his way to claim a job he thinks will be held for him until he arrives.
Out the train window, the landscape changes and becomes increasingly strange. The other passengers become strange too—and before he knows it, there’s no one else in the car with William Blake except hunters dressed head-to-toe in fur passing bottles of whisky back and forth, shouldering their shotguns. And who is he? A clean-shaven dandy from Cleveland hurtling farther and farther away from the place where he was born.
The train’s fireman enters the passenger car, his face and clothes covered in soot. He sits down opposite William Blake and says,
“And doesn’t this remind you of when you were in the boat?
And then later that night,
you were lying, looking up at the ceiling,
and the water in your head
is not dissimilar from the landscape…
And also, where is it you’re from?”
Roger Ebert (now a dead man too) hated the movie, calling it “strange, slow, unrewarding,” probably because nothing is resolved and William Blake spends an awfully long time dying.
William Blake is inside a boat, cedar boughs and twists of tobacco about him, a picture of Nobody on his chest, and we think to ourselves, isn’t it funny how—having been born in Ohio—he ends his days all the way out here, at the end of the line?
When I watch Dead Man now, I spend more time thinking about how old I am in relation to how young I was when I first saw it. I think about how charming Johnny Depp is as William Blake—how beautiful and strange and silly and young. I don’t really wish I could sleep with him anymore.
I spend less time contemplating Iggy Pop in drag and Jarmusch’s choice to shoot the film in black and white. I think more about Neil Young’s terrifying soundtrack, how he adlibbed his electric guitar to a rough cut of the movie played just for him in an old warehouse somewhere.
I think about that scene in which a lawman’s skull is crushed under a boot and about the image that preceded it, “a goddamn religious icon,” meaning the head, still intact, circled by kindling, the wood radiating from it like a corona.
I think about William Blake curled up beside a dead fawn.
I think about making images that last, and how I always seem to fail at making images that last.
I think about William Blake for whom the Johnny Depp character is coincidently named, or intentionally named, or cosmically named—William Blake, poet of Innocence and Experience who wrote, “Some are born to sweet delight. / Some are born to endless night,” a couplet Johnny Depp’s William Blake recites before he shoots another man.
In an interview, Jarmusch claims William Blake chose to be included in the film, and that he—Jim Jarmusch—never intentionally or consciously chose to include William Blake. Rather, Blake’s spirit observed that that the nineteenth century American West (as imagined by a mid-1990s arthouse filmmaker) would be just the right place for him, so he insinuated himself into the script as Jarmusch was writing it, and suddenly the story was about Blake in America, Nobody in England, death, and a whole bunch of paper flowers.
American poet Kathleen Graber wrote a poem about the movie and it opens like this,
“We spend our lives trying to grasp the premise.”
We spend our lives trying to grasp the premise, and in the process come a series of disjointed images. Actions are split from consequences, motivations from outcomes. There is no linearity, only radiance.
Radiance isn’t because; it’s and.
Jarmusch, discussing his particular filmic style, once said, “The image need[s] to be removed from you before a new image [is] put in your head.”
A suitcase bouncing on a plaid flannel lap
Fade to black
A train car and another train car and another
Fade to black
A cardinal in a birch tree
Fade to black
A cardinal in the vestry
Fade to black
A single word floating in the frame
And dissolving into
A woman stumbling into mud and
spilling her paper flowers
Blake was Romanticism’s odd-man-out—more of an artist than a poet, limping in from the Enlightenment dusted head to foot by its golden pollen and desperately trying to brush it off—from his jacket, from inside his clavicle, from his hair, his eyes.
Blake’s eternals are muscular, classical, almost static—and yet hellfire. And yet tumult. Chaos radiates from order, or vice versa.
William Blake sees the past and the future simultaneously. Ohio may be the end of the line for some of us, and California or England the beginning. Or vice versa. For my mom, it was Texas, then Ohio, Ohio, Florida, and Ohio again. When William Blake sees angels, he projects himself forward in time to Ohio, mid-January, mid-1990s, where in the bare black branches of a sycamore roosts the very ordinary Cardinalis cardinalis—a red-feathered, black-masked, tufted songbird indigenous only to North America: a fire-colored angel.
We all have visions sometimes. My mom sees stray cats as angels. She sees the neighbor boy on his tricycle as my brother. White smoke becomes snow, snow becomes static. William Blake sees a fairy’s funeral in my mother’s brain. He sees us dying all the way out here in Machine.
My mother has been banging on windows in the rain, mascara running down her cheeks. She’s been squirreling bottles of booze between couch cushions. She’s been speaking in tongues by which I mean nonsense, stealing ATM cards from her ninety-year old mother-in-law—a woman who herself has graduated from the mad stage and entered the dying stage.
Lately, the doctor has been asking my mother, “What’s the date today?” She mostly gets the month right, but then she might say, “1995.”
Her language is becoming singular, idiosyncratic. Her beefs are both growing and contracting.
An MRI is scheduled. Zoloft is prescribed.
But when I talk to my mother, her eternal understanding of the universe still includes the Vietnam War and how it tore her marriage to my father apart. “Things were different after the war,” she says and says and says and says.
In Shakespeare’s All Well That Ends Well, the physician’s daughter Helen speaks of her high-class crush Bertram in this way:
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
It is Bertram’s strangeness toward Helen—his aloofness, his distance—that casts her in light, a “collateral light,” a cold comfort enough to see by.
It’s a strange radiance my father still casts, even after thirty years of separation, on my mother. It’s like she’s on the receiving end of some perceived star, already dead. No wonder she’s the way she is. No wonder my mom is weeping to me on the phone and confounding her current husband who asks me, Why is she so crazy? Can you talk to her? Can you tell her to come home, when what he really means is, Can you take her away? The nature of her own radiance hasn’t been measured. In the past, doctors might’ve called what ails her a nervous condition, a shriveled uterus, public drunkenness or private drunkenness, residue from pills taken for pain, or just basic older woman stuff. “And also, the world is fucked,” my mother says, marvelously, at the Thanksgiving table. Everyone is shocked.
In her essay “Marvelous Things Heard: On Finding Historical Radiance,” Catherine Chin urges us to reconsider our penchant for reading relatable, empathetic connections onto history, and to look instead for the weird, the disconcerting, the remoteness of the past from which emanates what she calls radiance—a great distant sun from which a collateral light is cast. Chin says,
The intellectual habit of producing historical loss…is also
the practice of training oneself to experience the force
of the past’s otherness, since the context of deep loss is what
generates the radiance, the overwhelming otherness, of what
is found. The more richly we can learn to imagine what is lost,
the more other the past must become.
Chin means for us to reassess how we view and interpret old worlds, other civilizations, distant belief systems and ways of living, of having children, of working, of dying. Better for us, she insists, that we forgo our inclination toward relatability, straight connections, and systematic, perceptible truths. We must allow loss to stand and life to shimmer inside its own corona of strangeness. By doing so, we make room for people and places different from ourselves. “The weirdness of the past gives us fewer places to hide in the present,” Chin says.
At the local children’s science museum there’s a little room tucked away inside an exhibit about water and hydrodynamics where the staff keep a few taxidermy animals from some older, less-hip iteration of the museum, along with a living snake, frog, and turtle in their respective aquariums, fossils and dried bugs to look at under microscopes, and even a “scat guide,” so the next time we hike through the woods we can differentiate between fox shit and bear shit and deer shit. My children love this room.
My daughter immediately sits down at the microscope and inspects the seashells, feathers, then the backs of her hands, which show up on a screen in front of her in minute detail. She marvels at the fluffy, blonde hair growing from her pores.
My son is drawn to a stuffed black bear cub, a raccoon, some birds—including a male and female cardinal—in a glass cabinet. A plaque tells us the appropriate collective nouns for the cardinal are as follows:
deck, college, radiance.
Radiance isn’t a warm light. Radiance isn’t the Union Pacific running linearly. It isn’t coastal. It’s a diffusion into remote corners, into far-flung, landlocked states.
To try and tell my daughter who my mother was is to illuminate the emanation of distant stars into dark places. It’s to say,
sometimes beside my mother’s weeping cherry a man in all-black and a man in all-white appear and look in at her through the window, and sometimes it’s my mother looking in through the window, having accidently locked herself out of the house.
There’s a busy railroad a few blocks from our house. “Trains loud!” my daughter used to scream. “Trains loud!” and I would tell her, “Oh, honey, I would turn them down if I could.” Now she hardly notices them.
As a little girl, I used to sneak into my father’s home office while he was at work to look at a weird train painting he’d hung on the wall. It was colored ruby and blood-orange, an apocalyptic impasto. A splintery wood frame cradled it, paraphrasing for me the idea of train. I remember chipping away at the paint with my fingernail.
To me, that picture was just another reason to confuse my dad with something mythic.
The train was backlit by a violent sun, the landscape through which it steamed vaguely Western, radiating menace and movement, cradled by a wood frame so rough I was sure that if I dragged a finger across it I’d come up with a splinter the size of a railroad tie.
The word for a fear of trains is siderodromophobia, a word with worry at its root, along with iron and transport. And now I wonder—if pressed—would psychiatrists invent a similar word for parenthood. I need a word to describe my fear of my children’s fear when, one day, they enter a space emptied of us, their mother and father. I need a word to describe my fear of their fear as they rummage through our stuff, look at the pictures we hung, leaf through our writing—in particular this very essay about trains and cardinals, cold light, etc.
My sister and I check in with one another regularly now. We commiserate about Mom. How many doctor appointments has she cancelled, skipped out on, forgotten? She said she would drive up to see the kids but she never comes, coming up instead with all sorts of excuses that change over the course of multiple phone messages: too cold, needed at home, van in shop, stomach bug. Should she even be driving at all? But she drives to work every day where she’s a teacher’s aide for special needs preschoolers, where they love her and value her, she says. Where the gym teacher thinks she’s beautiful, she says, regaling us with stories in which—voice breaking as if close to tears—her worth is affirmed again and again, mostly thanks to her kindness and her looks, never her intellect, though I remember her sparkling vocabulary, how she used to sprinkle her conversation with song lyrics and literary references, how she used to say her lapdog Bogey (though she adored him) was “an albatross around her neck.” The commiseration usually ends with uncomfortable laughing. Oh well. Oh jeeze. Our mother is the queen of uncomfortable laughter. We get it from her. Then we get off the phone by saying, I love you, like a charm against future pain. And the future is coming. Fast. What spreads out behind us is a wake in the water, is radiance, is strangeness, is knowing the woman we knew we won’t be back again, is seeing how she estranges herself, becomes strange, and therefore miraculous.
A big plastic cardinal with a solar panel on its back was delivered to our house in a box addressed to “The New Baby.” My daughter had been born not long before, and all sorts of packages started showing up on our front porch full of baby clothes and shoes, diapers, swings, playmats, teethers, covered casserole dishes, and now a big plastic cardinal with a solar panel on its back.
Was it actually supposed to be for the baby, or was it for me? Or maybe it was actually meant for someone else altogether. Or if it was indeed meant for me, who thought I wanted a big plastic cardinal with a solar panel on its back, and how could they could be so wrong? Probably my mother, I think to myself, who sent another package accidently to me, when she meant to keep it for herself.
Shipped directly from the store with no card inside, I started texting everybody, my mom, my mother-in-law, my stepmother, to see which one of them sent it, but no one claimed responsibility. All of them ended their replies with some kind of virtual chuckle—a bird emoji, a laughing-with-tears-coming-out emoji. I wondered if they were messing with me.
The cardinal squatted, unloved, in our pantry for almost a year, then the following spring I plunked it down on our back-patio table for some inexplicable reason. I guess I wanted to see what happened when the sun hit it: Nothing.
It sat there for a while, big and fat and red and plastic, and was ignored.
Then, something strange began to happen.
Actual cardinals were suddenly everywhere—at least it seemed that way to me. A whole radiance of them.
They started hovering around the table, beating their wings under the umbrella, landing on the backs of patio chairs, nearly close enough to touch. It looked like they were actually inspecting the big plastic cardinal, were baffled by it, entranced, or even full of anger at it, as in, What the actual Hell?
I observed this behavior for many days. It became a thing. I took furtive photos. I let friends know I was in the midst of an animal study that had something to do with the nature of self-recognition. But I wasn’t a good scientist; I never took notes and so these text messages and phone calls had to serve as evidence.
The men dressed head-to-foot in the dead skins of animals shift in their seats, juggle their guns, and look sideways at William Blake. It is such a long, brutal journey for everyone. And it is sometimes boring,
but my daughter watches a cartoon some mornings that tells her, “When you wait you can play, sing, or imagine anything.”
I first saw a genuine Blake painting just a year ago when I was 40 in Cleveland. It’s a small canvas—I almost walked right by it. But it called to me, I’d like to think, so I turned around. It insinuated itself into the particular narrative of that particular day and the larger narrative of this essay, which is to say the radiance I call my story, estranged as it is from me. The painting is golden and titled St. Matthew, painted in tempera in. 1799. It’s about heavenly inspiration, yet it’s menacing, which reminds me:
a cardinal is also a priest in a red robe and it’s also a central fact or a primary sin.
Supposedly, St. Joseph whispered the peculiar recipe for Blake’s tempera to him in a dream. How strange that that mostly mysterious Biblical father would speak at last, and specifically about paint.
Painter Charley Harper lived the majority of his life in Cincinnati, where I was born. He taught at the Cincinnati Art Academy where my father was briefly a student, and he and his wife Edie built a house in the woods of Finneytown, north of the city.
He made art about the interconnectedness of species, the capricious convergence of color and shape. In other words, Harpers’ is an art to brighten and delight both sanitary public spaces and the innocence of nurseries. His wit is G-rated, all distances overcome, whole ecosystems, classes, and taxonomies trounced in a feat of geometric problem-solving. It’s as if he eradicated distance by puzzling together stylized geometric shapes until, to the viewer, all the mess of life just goes away.
My parents had a few Harper prints in the house where I grew up—buzzards in a row, cardinals in snow, a squirrel on a bird feeder, and—more exotically—a koala bear munching eucalyptus. But my favorite were the cardinals. I loved the ruby-colored male in snow and I loved his dun-colored mate. I loved the mathematics of their wings.
My dad retired recently. At a big party the partners, nurses, and hospital administration threw for him, there was a multitude of speeches and champagne toasts ranging in emotion from comic to tender. A series of photos projected onto a huge screen of my father at various ages—as a young GI, as a young physician, laughing in the middle of a group of people, a stethoscope around his neck, his lab coat on, or at bedsides, consulting MRIs, instructing administrative assistants by pointing discerningly at files—played over and over again as guests in the ballroom under ambient light looked on in awe of his decades of professional radiance. My mother was missing from the presentation, as were we.
Later, groups of nurses begged to have their picture taken with my dad, kissed him on the cheek; a woman even perched on his knee like he was Santa Claus. I found myself staring at him as if I didn’t know him, and I didn’t. I didn’t know him.
Acknowledging as much had something to do with drinking a whole bottle of champagne, probably, and time, which was chugging away, on and on, farther and farther from the moment I thought I knew him.
After the party my father moved away from Cincinnati for good, but before he did, he gave me the Charley Harper cardinals print because, he said, his new home is small and there aren’t enough walls. We didn’t hang it for a while, and I didn’t happen to look on the back of the frame when I picked it up from his old place.
“Here,” my husband said, handing me an envelope. “You accidently threw out the certificate of authenticity. Or something.” It had been taped to the back.
I opened the envelope, unfolded the paper, and this is what I read,
I had to fly so many combat hours to make my money
so I signed up for wherever they were going—Hong Kong,
Tokyo. I’d go to Tokyo all by myself and basically stay
in the hotel—maybe get some hibachi. Walk around a bit.
Once or twice I went down to the station and got on a
they had those, even then—to Yokohama and not know where the hell I was or where I was going
and I was rocketing away in this thing all by myself
with all these people I didn’t know, going so far so fast
the distance between me and my hotel kept growing and
I was scared shitless, which was exhilarating in a bad way,
how with every mile
I could see my mother and my wife back in Cincinnati getting smaller and smaller until I could slice serve them over a tennis net. Also, the food. Very good.
And the country outside the window. Very pretty.
It was weird to do this but I was bored and went for a massage
once and they shot little jets of water at me and it stung
like needles. In Hong Kong I asked for chocolate mousse
and I got a house made out of chocolate with a little chimney
and everything. I liked looking at the harbor from above so
I said to myself when I get back to Ohio
I’m getting myself a room with a view.
Got to take care of the problem over there before it becomes a problem here
like Fred who was fed up with all the bogus requests
he sent a private back to his commanding officer with
a blue marker check mark on his forehead checked by
a doctor. I’d never go back to Vietnam.
Some guys I talk to these days are going back like on a cruise or something; yeah, they said they were going back but I said no, I’ve got no desire to go back, but Hong Kong?
I’d go back in a minute. In the sixties there were these
buildings that sold
shitloads of jewelry and each floor
was dedicated to a different precious gem—so there was
the sapphire floor and the diamond floor and the ruby floor.
Oh God. The ruby floor. What I’d give to be there now.
Listen to "Guitar Solo, No. 3" from the Dead Man soundtrack by Neil Young, selected to accompany "Collateral Light," below:
LESLEY JENIKE's (she/her/hers) poetry and nonfiction have appeared or will appear soon in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, phoebe, Waxwing, The Account, and many other venues. Her most recent collection is a chapbook of poetry, Punctum:, out from Kent State University Press in 2017. She teaches literature and creative writing at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and two young children.