Dedicated to Matt Kish
By Seth Wood
Experiment commenced: August 2021
I first encountered the art of Matt Kish by coming across Moby-Dick in Pictures (Tin House, 2011) on a bookstore shelf and was immediately captivated by it. I had been struggling with my own relationship to Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale. As an aspiring scholar of American literature I knew I had to contend with it. As a graduate student instructor I told one of my first audiences of students that “Poe [was] my ocean [the ocean I was castaway upon, honestly], and Moby-Dick [was] my mountain.” It was a mountain which I couldn’t say honestly I’d climbed until after I saw it through the lens of Matt Kish’s illustrations (and at first with no little help from Frank Muller’s masterful reading of the book, too, I’ll admit).
Within a year of finding Moby-Dick in Pictures I was presented with my first opportunity to teach an American literature course as a post-graduate with a doctorate at Oklahoma State University. I decided to teach Moby-Dick and that Matt Kish’s art would be involved, but I little expected how the events of that year would bring me into a much more personal and profound connection to his work. I’m sure those events will be referred to in the pages to come, so leave it… keep it simple as he did getting underway (as it turns out, 12 years ago this month).
Because I consider Matt Kish’s project of creating an original illustration for every page of Moby-Dick to be one of the greatest interpretations of the book ever made, I am now going to write a page (or thereabouts) for every one of his 552 (or thereabouts) illustrations. Any references or quotes of Moby-Dick that are made are done from memory, unless referencing the individual lines from Melville’s book with which MK titles his illustrations.
Here is the first page:
First lines are trouble. In Moby-Dick that trouble is at least double. What is the first line of the book anyway? Ask anyone who knows anything about it, and they’ll know: “Call me Ishmael.” – like the bartender who recently overheard me lording some knowledge of the book myself and declaimed the sentence aloud to the nearly deserted bar. It’s the book’s famous first line, maybe one of the most famous first lines of all time, but is that the book’s first line? Even after the customary front matter of the title page and dedication to Hawthorne, after the Table of Contents, the first word is “Etymology” (no punctuation) then that odd little bit about the “pale,” “consumptive,” “threadbare” Usher/grammarian, and then there’s the catalogue of “Extracts,” decontextualized words on whales from a sort of greatest hits of Western civilization (with a few notable exceptions).
But MK draws none of these pages at first*, set awkwardly and strangely between the Table of Contents and Loomings, paginated with Roman numerals. It’s not how he sees it, not at the time of commencing his experiment anyway. By the time I hit Chapter 1, the warp is already mounted on the loom.
*In 2015, 4 years after completing his “task,” MK composed a series of illustrations of the Extracts that can be viewed on his website here.