Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 21

9/15/21, 5:28am


Ishmael’s introduction to Queequeg, and the introduction of the latter into MD, consists in some 1,200 words worth of observations concerning the appearance and actions of a person who’s just walked into his own rented room at the Spouter Inn, where, unbeknownst to him, courtesy of landlord Coffin, another man is in his bed, observing him undress and prepare for sleep. 

The light by which Queequeg is observed is held in one of his hands, the rumored embalmed head in the other; he sets his candle down in the corner and begins untying the cords closing his bag of personal possessions. This is the extent of action described before Ishmael spends 200 words reporting on the appearance of the skin on the Queequeg’s face, which the former “was all eagerness” to see while the latter was turned from him, working at the bag. Apart from the initial confusion pertaining to the “large blackish looking squares” – Queequeg’s tattoos, which Ishmael initially mistakes for surgical “sticking-plasters” – the tone of the skin around these “stains” particularly disturbs him: it’s an “unearthly complexion,” he reports, “of a dark purplish, yellow color.” Ishmael’s overfull head at least contains some vague precedent for regarding tattoos as something under the sun, but for Queequeg’s skin tone he has no preconception: “I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one.” Of course, the presumption he’s made – Ishmael’s prejudice – is that Queequeg is “a white man,” that Coffin wouldn’t have paired him with a non-white man for a bedfellow (despite the landlord having specified that he’s a “dark complexioned chap”). 

The only figurative language registered in the whole of this lengthy literal report on Queequeg’s appearance and behavior upon entering his room is one simile meant to convey the speed with which all these considerations and wonderments passed through Ishmael’s mind: “like lightning.” The next time a simile is registered occurs after Queequeg has extracted his “sort of tomahawk” out of his bag, stowed his unsold head in it, removed his hat, and turned again so Ishmael can see the “scalp-knot” upon his forehead, all he has for hair: “His bald purplish head looked now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull.”

The event of language that MK chooses to illustrate from this page of MD is a disturbing one whereby Ishmael figuratively flays the offending skin off the face he’s just spent an intricate paragraph trying to account for. The death’s head collaged onto the body of the black yarn of the nightmarish harpooneer in 18 is here hand drawn in indigo ink with osteological exactness. The skull is sketched large, occupying the majority of the found page (now, again, a schematic from a radio manual: this one for an RCA Victor amp chassis); if face it had, it would be facing the left margin of the page. Daubs of greyish black ink are concentrated along the back of the skull and spread outward from its outline into the upper and lower left corners of the canvas. Only two features of the canvas render the skull identifiable as Queequeg. MK includes a thick, neatly bound “scalp-knot” of hair atop the skull – an uncanny sign of vitality and health on this otherwise lifeless thing – and, in the lower left corner, the Queequeg signature: a boldly inked capital Q above an infinity band, in red.

Previously, after my attempt to account for the nightmarish vision of the black yarn of a harpooneer in 19, which Ishmael carries with him to bed courtesy of landlord Coffin, when publishing that writing on my blog, I decided not to tag the post with the name “Queequeg.” I didn’t want the archival function of the tag to index that monstrous vision beneath that name. With this illustration, I have a similar reluctance, but the presence of the Queequeg signature upon this canvas seems to decide for me that this illustration and my writing about it will be so tagged. I don’t want it to be. This, too, I believe, is a conspiratorial vision of Queequeg: not an illustration of him so much as how he is seen to be literally skinned alive by the naive, prejudiced, dangerous gaze of the seemingly harmless person hiding terrified in the bed where the pair will spend the next few days cozying up and becoming best friends.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 021

Title: His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint and ballpoint pen on found paper; August 26, 2009)

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, 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)