Dark Emeralds at White Castle

by Jean Harper

In the painting, there is one dark head at the window, and I think he—yes, he—this man in the 24-hour White Castle, somewhere in Missouri, is leaning with his back to the rain slicked glass, reading a book of poetry. Not a newspaper, for we might see a corner of the news tipped into the light.  Not a magazine, for why in the middle of a rainy night go to an all-night White Castle in Middle America to read a magazine.  Those are in waiting rooms – doctors’, dentists’, hairdressers’. Here, perhaps on a side street in St. Louis, the man in White Castle is reading something contemplative, yet with joy in it.  I want him to be reading James Wright, maybe The Collected Poems.  I think his daughter has given it to him, a gift attached to no holiday, just: Here, Dad.

White Castle
Fleenor, Sarah. White Castle. 2016, oil on panel. Part of the series, Recessional: Twilight of Middle America.

This painting, White Castle, by Sara Fleenor, hangs in my home, on my office wall, where I write and draw.  I am not from Middle America, I have never eaten a White Castle burger.  Yet, now into my third decade here, this is where I live—Indiana here, two states over from Missouri there.  I hold White Castle beside Nighthawks, a work that makes the ordinary mysterious, beautiful.  Every day I say a quiet hello to the painting of this warm-lit place, a refuge in a cold dark wet night.   Every day this painting reminds me where I am, and how I can love this place—the Midwest—so different from where I came from, the city, the East.

Because, I suppose, I am a story teller, I let stories rise up out of this painting.  Why shouldn’t we do that, with art?  With life? I want to imagine the man in White Castle paging through the James Wright poetry book; he is here, now, after second shift at a factory somewhere in the city.  It’s midnight, past midnight.  He doesn’t want to go home, not yet, and so reads and reads. We all read and read.

I want him to find this, the short poem “Jewel”:

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

The man in White Castle, because he is a sensible Midwestern man, would not gasp with revelation, or delight. He might just nod.  That is enough.  He would take another sip of coffee, cooling now, and read the poem again. And again.  He would memorize it that night, taking the lines and the rhythm and the images of dark emeralds, his bones, his bones, into that cave behind his body where no one will touch it.  As I would.



Jean Harper lives in rural northeast Indiana on a small farm where she writes and rides horses.  Her most recent book is Still Life with Horses​ (2017).  Her writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, Florida Review, and elsewhere.  She is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow (2012).

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