After landlord Coffin has deposited Ishmael in the harpooneer’s room with assurances of the spaciousness of the retired conjugal bed and orders to make himself at home, Ishmael scrutinizes the space and notes the harpooneer’s few personal effects deposited there: a large seaman’s bag, a tall harpoon, and a heavy shaggy textile that Ishmael can only liken to a “door mat,” which lays upon the “crazy old sea chest” conspicuously furnishing the room. Ishmael holds the article to the light and smells it, noticing some ornamental “tags” around its perimeter and a hole or slit in its middle that reveals it to be a garment, some kind of poncho. Ishmael pulls the garment over his head to examine his appearance in a piece of mirror and only registers its dampness before his reflection sends him tearing out of the poncho so fast he strains his neck.
As Ishmael’s observations upon first entering the Spouter Inn prompted MK’s illustrations of the dingy, indistinct painting and Nat Swain’s storied lance, Ishmael’s survey of his shared room prompts another still-life. The harpooneer’s poncho is drawn as if spread flat upon another page from the sewing instruction guide, this one featuring a list of the book’s contents pertaining to “Necklines & Collars.” Those words, printed in large gold lettering along the right margin of the rotated page are only partially obscured by the specimen of wonderfully intricate black inkwork. One corner of the poncho is shown on the canvas, formed by heavily drawn perimeter lines that extend from the upper third of the left margin and near the far right corner of the lower margin. 20+ tassels sprawl from the delicately scalloped edges, each holding a narrow, pointed toothlike shape with a black band about its middle. Within this defined area of the canvas MK draws a tightly compacted herringbone pattern consisting of 77 individual columns of tiny, slanted lines. (The columns are mostly oriented at roughly a 15 degree angle off the vertical axis of the canvas.) The pattern isn’t perfectly uniform, but broken up at intervals by columns that veer off at diagonal angles for some length before joining into others. Another variation in the pattern of penwork comprising the textile are groupings of white-outlined block shapes.
The veering columns of herringbone linework often converge around these patches of white blocks, creating the visual effect of scattered darns in the textile’s surface, indicating age or use. The slit at the center of the poncho is rendered as a narrow black rectangle in the lower left quadrant of the canvas, extending from its bottom edge toward its left margin, surrounded by a neat network of lines running perpendicular to the black rectangle’s sides and surrounded by a white rectangular band for a hem. Some of the printed lettering of the table of contents of “Necklines & Collars” is still visible in this white rectangular frame and some of the white-block darn spots as well.
Perhaps the only consideration that can deepen the striking visual impression of this still-life is the time and patience it took MK to create it. All the more impressive considering that the poncho is all but absent from the text of MD after this moment but becomes a regular feature of MK’s many illustrations of the harpooneer that follow, meaning that almost every time he drew Queequeg, there was a significant concentration of time and energy dedicated to the intricate herringbone textile he sports for outerwear. Perhaps impossible to capture from the perspective and style in which the textile is rendered here is its dampness. In the world of the book created by MK, what Ishmael takes to be moisture resulting from the poncho being worn “of a rainy day” is rather a residue of the body it contains.