Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 14

9/5/21, 7:19am


Bulkington – Ishmael’s soon-to-be shipmate whose “apotheosis” punctuates the poetic rhapsody marking the Pequod’s passage from harbor to open ocean in The Lee Shore – is first spotted by our narrator in the Spouter Inn. In this canvas MK spots him first spotting this specimen whaleman.

In MD, Bulkington is described as dark complexioned – “face… deeply brown and burnt” – phrasing which has lent support to interpretations of him as dark-skinned by birth and sunbaked by his career asea. Melville’s text does not identify this brief character as Black so unambiguously as those inhabitants of the “negro church” Ishmael trips into and degrades in The Carpet-bag, but if Bulkington is Black, then he’s only the second individual Black person described in their individuality in MD, after the “black Angel of Doom.” In MK’s illustrations, Bulkington’s is the third black face, after the Angel of Doom and the “young fellow” illustrated just prior in 13. 

Bulkington’s head – painted small in the upper-left corner of the canvas, facing right, with an undersized, tufted pea green sailor’s cap perched aloft – is not given the elongated peglike appearance of a landsman but appears rather like that shape hammered down to a stump, a brow-like formation overhanging in the silhouette of his face at the base of which another tunnel-like mouth is filled-in with two even rows of shock-white blocks for teeth. The prominence of these teeth is a detail from Ishmael’s description of Bulkington that, notably, does not derive from the titular quote for this canvas; another such detail is reflected in MK’s representation of Bulkington’s eyes as a single elongated band of deep blue, like a helmet’s vizor rendered fluid. In MD, Bulkington’s eyes are described as shadowed, and “floating” in them Ishmael espies “reminiscences that did not seem to bring him [Bulkington] much joy” before he quietly retreats from the raucous society of his fellow, recently-landed shipmates, and they go out into the dark streets hollering after him. In MK’s illustration, Bulkington’s brawn and bulk are given a more enduring presence.


Bulkington’s “coffer-dam” of a chest is the most prominent feature of his physical characterization in this canvas, occupying more than the whole left half of the found page upon which it’s painted: the first sheet of a “Glossary of hand stitches,” rotated 90 degrees right. His pea green monkey jacket – markedly out of proportion to his small, black head – is geometrically shaped with a long sloping corner forming the shoulder, which mimics the contour and placement of the yellow-gold illustration of a featherstitch still visible on the found page just to the right. The billowing visual effect of Bulkington’s jacket is buttressed by two more details of the canvas: 1) the topmost part of the green jacket is painted so as to just overlap the lower row of white teeth, making the figure appear neckless or as if viewed from below, and 2) a waist-belt comprised of a grey-black band sandwiched between two thin lines of blue paint, below which the jacket appears to angle out sharply. Bulkington is swole, but in a fashion rather heavy and static than airy. Indeed, MK adds a feature to the canvas to concretize this bulk: where the found page has been painted over white to accommodate the subject, from below the waving tapered front hem of the monkey jacket, a brick wall extends composed of neatly patterned black lines.

The way MK illustrates him, it would be a wonder for Bulkington to slip from a crowded room unseen, much less to fall into water only to evaporate into thin air. A coffer-dam is a structure designed to enclose and contain great water pressure while submerged. What force, then, could break this body and release the native element therein – brimming just below its surface, as seen by that narrow channel of a vizor-eye – so as to transmogrify it to air? Spoiler: Moby Dick.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 014

Title: He stood a full six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer-dam. I have seldom seen such brawn in a man.
(8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; acrylic paint and ink on found paper; August 19, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 12



I’ve sometimes drank as if to race death to the bottom of a glass, but I’ve also witnessed people drinking themselves as if literally to death. I’ll never forget the young man I saw running shirtless, full sprint, bent-waisted and headlong into the wooden railing of the porch of the mountain house where we were partying – repeatedly, ramming his head into the railing – nearly knocking himself out with every sickening crunch of the very top of his head against the well-fastened, not widely spaced balustrade, until he keeled over vomiting in the liriope and rhododendron. His friends said he was just drunk and always like that. We took him to the ER after seeing some worrisome evidence in his vomit, and he ended up having his stomach pumped. I laid off substances for some days, life went on, I graduated college, and I’m still no teetotaler. I’m drinking right now…

And what about how the gerund “drinking” can mean specifically drinking alcohol and be regarded as a straight-faced stand-in for drinking no other substance or elixir? “Whatcha doing?” I’m drinking. By that I surely cannot mean I am drinking milk, orange juice, tea, or water. Of course, I may be drinking any of those drinks and say “I’m drinking.” when asked what I’m doing, but even if it went like this – “Whatcha doing?” “Drinking.” “This early??” “Drinking coffee.” “Oh right [lol, eyeroll]” – it would be a bad joke, cheap sarcasm. One says “I’m drinking.” as if it could possibly mean, when asked “Whatcha doing?” and I say “Eating.” that I could only mean myself to be eating one type of food, or idly joking about not eating that one type of food. I’m drinking…

Drinking… For some it’s an easy compromise, for others an uneasy one, and for some it’s a disease. Whatever ease you have or lack or perpetually undo when it comes to drinking you’re reminded looking at this canvas that death is at the bottom of it. Language itself propels us toward a death’s head at the bottom of an empty, heavy bottomed glass, where was the fiery brew we would pour down the hatch as if to put out the deadly flame down below, or just behind.

9/3/21, 6:02am

The temperance movement biases Ishmael’s description of the bar at the Spouter Inn to no small degree. The barman, “another cursed Jonah,” sells sailors “delirium and death” from his jawbone den and at cheating prices. In contrast to the motley store of flasks, bottles, and decanters that house the “poison,” his customers drink from glasses that are “true cylinders” where they meet the hand and “tapered” where they hold their measures. MK honors this feature of the barman Jonah’s deceptive drinkware with his illustration of an empty glass – painted lightly in a “villainous” shade of green, set center-canvas against a backdrop of flowering flames, orange overlaid yellow. A jawless skull rests atilt in the narrowed false-bottom of the glass, not drawn but collaged into the canvas, adding a glaring realism to the otherwise simple illustration.

A basic, small tri-pointed crown, colored yellow, floats above the rim of the glass aligned with the sunken death’s head below, the only detail of the illustration that lacks an obvious analogue in the text of MD. Ishmael never ventures closer to the robber Jonah’s den than to note that you could park a carriage in there (cramped as the rest of the place is made out to be), so he never opines what royal distinction may apotheosize from a drained, abominable tumbler.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 012

Title: Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison.
(7.25 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint, collage and ink on found paper; August 17, 2009)