Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 18


Even after Coffin clarifies matters for Ishmael about the late nighttime activities of his promised bedmate, Ishmael is determined to imagine the worst: “‘Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.’” This time he justifies his prejudice on religious grounds, in such a way that (really, as such a proudly learned person) he should’ve figured out by now what sort of person the harpooneer is: what sort of person, he wonders to himself (as if in real time), spends the earliest hours of a Sabbath day involved in such a heathanish business as selling embalmed heads?

9/10/21, 9:05pm

MK’s illustration of Ishmael’s nightmarish vision of the harpooneer features prominently another death head – not drawn but collaged into the middle of the upper third of the canvas. Surrounding the black-and-white cutout of a  mandibled skull, is a broad, vague nimbus of white paint (barely discernible over the found page) with intervaled starburst blocks of grey. The feature is subtle but draws the eye to the death’s head almost as readily as the macabre array of red ink dropped, splattered, spilled and daubed about the canvas, most conspicuously on the margins. Owing to these most striking features of the illustration the eye can easily pass over as mimetic the tangle of black brush strokes twisted and spiralized into the approximate silhouette of the torso and limbs of a person, broad coiled ropes of black paint for feet. Clasped in a small, hooked loop at the end of a tendril-like braid for a right arm, a long black harpoon is painted, standing taller than the figure itself, red ink dripped and running from behind its spade-shaped head. Uplifted in the other twisted vine of an arm is a small black oblong shape (the offending “‘balmed head”) with white Xs for eyes and a horizontal white spine for a mouth. The figure is the horrible embodiment of the yarn Coffin has been spinning Ishmael about the harpooner. 

The question is: why does Ishmael persist in this nightmarish fantasy of the harpooneer even after Coffin more plainly explains the reason he’s out so late; what danger does he still pose? MK’s illustration, like the one of the barman Jonah’s poison tumbler, suggests death is at the bottom of it; only here, as with “the black Angel of Doom,” a shaded nimbus serves for the crown. The color chosen to paint the tangled yarn body – besides complimenting the black-and-white scheme that makes the drops, drips, splatters, and spills of red ink on the canvas scream bloody murder – serves as a fair reminder of the only information Ishmael has actually been given about the harpooneer besides the head peddling business: he’s “‘dark complexioned.’” This illustration is one of a monstrous black Other, truly more of a danger to any person the fantasy would be projected on than to the one doing the bad dreaming. As far as Coffin is concerned, as he rejoins before setting off to tuck Ishmael in, the man is civilized enough by the standards of the Spouter Inn: “‘He pays reg’lar.’” More than Ishmael could promise.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 018

Title: “Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.”
(8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; acrylic paint, collage and ink on found paper; August 23, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 11

9/2/21, 12:49pm


After his contemplation of the beguiling painting that hangs to one side of the entryway to the Spouter Inn, Ishmael turns to regard some “storied” retired tools of the trade the landlord Coffin has on display on the opposite wall. One of these implements is a lance reputedly wielded by one Nathan Swain to “kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and sunset” some fifty years prior (it’s said) to Ishmael’s visit to the Inn. 

MK illustrates this lance – oriented vertically, just left of center canvas – with a marked realism: the head of the lance is spade-shaped and set atop a thinly tapered rod, which at a length about six times that of the height of the lancehead is bored into a thick rounded handle, complete with a handgrip and a stray span of whale-line corded haphazardly about the tool and dropped dangling out the bottom of the frame. The lance is painted in silhouette, all black, and cut off by the bottom edge of the canvas at about half the length of what the handle would measure in life. Apropos Ishmael’s description of this lance as “wildly elbowed,” the rod to which the lancehead is affixed is angled stiffly to the right at about a 40 degree angle relative to the vertical axis of the canvas, putting the diverted lancehead center-canvas in the upper third of the found page.

Most of the circuitry schematic that would be visible on the left hand side of this sheet is obscured by a crudely painted, dark ruddy backdrop to the lance, unevenly rounded off at the top and broader at its base; the blunted shape and coloring of this feature lends a stillness and deadness to the appearance of the lance that it might otherwise lack. The bent implement appears closeted in the redbrown cavity or rather embossed black on the face of a muddied, titled tombstone. 

Movement and dynamism is brought to the canvas not by the bend in the retired lance but by the hot candy-red lightning-bolt entering the foreground of the illustration from the middle-right and extending to its lower-left extremity. The initials “N.S.” appear prominently on the broadest span of the red lightning-bolt on the far right side of the canvas, slightly askew. The effect is that of a flashing tag or pennant announcing that it’s the supposed “honor and glory” of Nat Swain that quickens Ishmael’s (and, in turn, MK’s) attention to this relic, more than the lance itself.

It would be very like Ishmael to say that this “‘once […] bravest boat-header out of all Nantucket’” inked his name to the beadroll of the immortal fishery in the blood of his monstrous foe (that is, before he “‘joined the meeting’” and got worried about his “‘plaguy soul,’” as Capt. Peleg later recalls Swain’s conversion to Quakerism and pacifism). MK is more sensitive and (perhaps like Swain) more attuned to the living legacy of all this bloodshed than the number of dead whales in one day that it happened to dart from. In his illustration, the initials N.S. aren’t written in the hot red flash but carved out of it as it were, nothing in themselves: an emptiness made legible by what surrounds it.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 011

Title: With this once long lance, now wildly elbowed, fifty years ago did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint and ink on found paper; August 13, 2009)