Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 27

9/21/21, 8:26pm

27

After waking up to the sleeping Queequeg’s spousal embrace, Ishmael only uses the word “cannibal” one more time to refer to his bedfellow, unless paraphrasing the words of another.* It’s before he’s roused Queequeg and in the mode and tone of a supererogatory superego, the Ishmael who sees himself being (potentially) seen by others: “A pretty pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk!” He calls Queequeg a “savage” three times after that, within a litany of observations about the man’s strange behavior and manners that follow upon him being shouted awake. Also used three times in the course of these few paragraphs is the word being opposed to “savage” in order to characterize Queequeg: “civilized.” In one other case Ishmael compliments Queequeg’s “civility and consideration” in proposing – by “certain signs and sounds,” like an ape – that he wash and dress first and leave Ishmael to his privacy in the room to wash and dress after. It’s as if Queequeg’s every behavior, to Ishmael’s gaze, is a hybridized symptom of the indelible marks of savagery and civilization both irreconcilable in him – e.g., he shaves in the morning, but with the head of his harpoon; he washes himself, but not his face; etc. – each time the “but” being the mark of the still-savage in him not yet “graduated” to full civilized status. Ishmael’s got a couple of metaphors about it; one is: “He was an undergraduate.” (It never occurs to the matriculated Ishmael that maybe Queequeg’s “toilette” has been hastened a bit by his unexpected presence in the room.) The other is the line from this page MK illustrates: “But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition state — neither caterpillar nor butterfly.”

To form this canvas, one found page overlays another: a 7 x 9.5 in. piece of white paper has pasted to its middle a more squared off page of avocado green showing six beautiful dead butterflies photographed upon it,  their shadows cast to the left of their carcases. An inch-and-a-half or so of the white paper is left exposed on the upper and lower edges of the canvas so that the silhouetted forms that reach toward the center of the canvas are thus reaching into the canvas and into the found page upon it, making this illustration a more pointed commentary on the found page than any before it. Markered over the middle of these two superimposed pages – situated neatly between the two columns of three butterflies (largest specimens at the bottom and the smallest in the middle), is a pupa-shaped pod of aquamarine squiggles scribbled over with black marker. Reaching out toward the pupa from the lower margin of the canvas is a black silhouetted arm and hand; aiming toward it from the upper margin is the head and narrow, roped shaft of a harpoon. Painted over the pupa is a large, thinly-brushed red infinity band** with what I now recognize to be a stamp of a capital letter Q, also in red paint, forming Queequeg’s signature. Here it’s writ large, forming the foreground of a portrait of Queequeg, cocooned. Interpreted from the perspective of Ishmael’s gaze, it shows the pupa suspended between forces of savagery (which could be fairly emblematized by the harpoon or the hand) and civilization (which could be fairly emblematized by the harpoon or the hand). 

But MK’s perspective on Queequeg’s “transitional state” does not necessarily align with Ishamel’s. I’m inclined to view MK’s interpretation of the polar forces with Queequeg’s cocoon situated vulnerably between them as, each of them, life-and-death. While the harpoon taking aim at the pupa from above is the sign of Queequeg’s livelihood, which he carries around with him proudly like a banner, it’s also the means of slaying creature after creature in MD, and it’s not a far cry from the invisible pins mounting the dead butterflies in place to be photographed on the avocado backdrop of the found page. The hand reaching out for the pupa from below could be that of Queequeg’s god, releasing it again into life, or it could be the hand reaching out to trap and cut-off the winding string of the butterfly’s life before its natural death. While Ishmael gazes upon Queequeg, and observes the awkward and delicate manifestations of his “transitional state” only a naive reader would regard this gaze as a purely positive one, encouraging and hastening its object to new life. Ishmael’s ethnographic gaze pins Queequeg to the page, the discourse of evolutionary science it’s steeped in kills the living it observes.

And Queequeg himself is no pure victim of these forces. As Ishmael observes, he’s internalized the gaze put on him from without. The heliconius (aka longwing) butterflies displayed on the found page are among one of the most famous and widespread genus of butterflies because of the importance they served in the history of evolutionary science. Within a decade of the publication of MD, Henry Walter Bates would publish the findings of his research into the pervasive and complex mimicry patterns of the Heliconiidae of the Amazon Valley, exciting and encouraging Darwin, Wallace, et al. with one the first systematic scientific rationalizations for the principle of natural selection in history. It was observed that other species of butterflies more commonly preyed upon in the Amazonian forests mimicked physical traits of the heliconians to survive, since the longwings fed on a food supply that rendered them toxic to predators. So they and their mimics flourished, but the mimics were always the more vulnerable the more they flourished since they didn’t evolve the eating habits to render them as veritably toxic as the butterflies whose appearance of (in)civility they put on.


*Ishmael does also use the word “cannibal” a couple more times in surveying the population of the New Bedford streets.

**The oblong pod is squiggled over again in black after the painting of the red infinity band to give the latter the appearance of being interwoven into the form at the center of the canvas, thus giving it long translucent wings rimmed in red, mimicking the dead butterflies photographed on the found page.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 027

Title: But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition state—neither caterpillar nor butterfly.
(7 inches by 9.5 inches; acrylic paint, ink, and marker on found paper; September 2, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 26

9/20/21, 6:10am

26

The experience of waking under Queequeg’s arm provokes a memory from Ishmael, one of the only straightforwardly autobiographical stories about his past before going a-whaling in the whole of MD, and it’s a “mystery”: he confesses himself unsure whether it’s the memory of a dream or of a reality. MK’s choice of found page to create this canvas is motivated to help capture an overwhelming, half-wakeful event, now doubly so, since the memory of an experience Ishmael had as a child between a state of sleeping and wakefulness is reactivated by a similar state he’s in when roused from the best sleep of his life at the Spouter Inn with “Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round [him].” The whole of the found page is occupied by an oddly-cropped, closeup black-and-white photograph of six narrow tree trunks, whose sparse leafless limbs are just beginning crookedly to fan out near the upper margin. It’s the type of shot you’d see in a film to show the perspective of someone lost in the woods – no forest, just trees – but there is no movement to this illustration. Here the vantage of the lost one is perfect stillness.

In Ishmael’s report of his memory, he briefly describes a circumstance which occasioned him being sent to bed by his “stepmother… [his] mother” on the longest day of the year: he thinks he’d been trying to climb up the chimney like he saw a ‘sweep do, or some other “caper.” After taking as much time as possible to undress, he spends hours tossing around in bed dreading the long passage of time before his liberation from this latest torment of a (step-)mother who’s recalled as “all the time whipping [him], or sending [him] to bed supperless.” Eventually he wakes from a fitful sleep, “half steeped in dreams,” and his room is shrouded in the dark of night. At this point, his report of the memory becomes unaccountably weird. Firstly, he describes a sensation…

8:00pm

a “shock” – it “runs through all [his] frame.” Like sleep paralysis, a sensation having no sensation – “nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard…” – but perhaps touch? “…but, a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside.” Ishmael’s lost command of his hand, and not just grammatically; he describes laying there as a child for what seemed like “ages piled on ages… frozen with the most awful fears,” not being able to move his hand but convinced all the while that doing so would break “the horrid spell.” 

The most reductive and dismissive interpretation of Ishmael’s report of this experience – like that of a fedup (step-)mother with far more important matters to see to – is that he awoke with the circulation cut off to his hand, draped as it was over the cover, and it went numb, and he merely imagined the “silent form or phantom” at his beside, as a projection from his dream state, while the wait to regaining sensation and control of his extremity passed longer than he understandably would have wished in his understandably frightened state. By the way, the intensity of his dreaming, to have returned to wakefulness with him in that way, just goes to show how deeply asleep he must have been and how much, after all, he needed a good, long rest after all that capering, in spite of the difficulty he had settling himself down.

Of course, there are other interpretations. MK sets himself the challenge of illustrating the silent, formless phantom that visited Ishmael during his childhood confinement, the thing felt without sight, sound, or notion. He accomplishes this with a stunningly simple method. I think it went something like this: 1) he spray painted an arching ombre of silvery grey about the middle of the found page showing the six trees; 2) he placed stencils over the canvas: two rounds for eyes, placed just below the centerpoint of the canvas so to align with two of the narrow trunks, and below them a cutout of a rudimentary right hand; 3) he then spray painted a shade of white into the cutout holes for eyes and of the hand shape below; 4) then, I believe, he covered the eye-hole and hand shapes he just spray painted white with the pieces he cut out to form the stencils and then spray painted black over them, concentrating the color where it abuts the silver grey ombre and lightening toward the bottom of the canvas so you can still make out the narrow tree trunks behind. That is the best effort I can make, like a bad (step-)mother, to explain away the greatest mystery of the piece to my eyes: that string of errant black paint in the bottom of the figure’s right eye that you can’t see the tree trunk through. 

That is to avoid speaking to the haunting illustration of the formless body in the dark, its silhouetted white hand so placed – as only its own hand could be, when it’s my hand it’s dispossessed and disarmed – to keep some secret. No amount of probing the canvas should fail to recognize that the illustration is designed to honor what remains non-disclosed about Ishmael’s recorded memory of his past experience as much as it is to animate any details disclosed by it. Ishmael admits that upon waking up and “seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round [him]” he felt as strange as he did waking as child in the night and clasping the “supernatural hand” of a “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” but without the awful fear. (Indeed, accordingly, as if fear’s been purged, from here on out, Ishmael only refers to Queequeg or anyone else as a “cannibal” when animating the thoughts of others to himself.) Not disclosed is why the sight of Queequeg’s armed draped over the counterpane reactivates a memory of his own arm draped over the counterpane, or to which counterpane the chapter’s title refers.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 026

Title: …and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside.
(9 inches by 11 inches; spray paint on found paper; August 31, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 25

9/19/21, 7:06am

25

When Ishmael awakes for the first time in the Spouter Inn, he finds that Queequeg has broken his nonverbal promise of the night previous to keep to his side of the bed. Ishmael’s little spoon. All he can make out of Queequeg is the man’s arm wrapped about him, but to his waking eyes the tattooed and variously-tanned appendage is so indistinct from the patchwork bedspread that it’s only by “its sense of weight and pressure” – Ishmael’s sense of touch – that he recognizes Queequeg is hugging him. The scene is similar to Ishmael’s observations of the painting hanging in the entryway of the Inn and Queequeg’s poncho the night previous, where an event of observation is recorded as a partial failure to recognize the object being sensed; here the evidence of the “most loving and affectionate” embrace of Queequeg’s arm is felt before it is clearly seen. At the same time, Ishamel’s report of this experience is shot through with another narrative perspective which, as if looking down on the pair in bed from the ceiling, capitalizes on the humor of the scene. 

Not unlike the reports Ishmael provides about his “series of systematic visits” to the painting to ascertain its meaning and the knee jerk effect of him seeing his reflection wearing Queequeg’s poncho, he infuses the first person limited narrative perspective with a more distanced, omniscient one that prompts the reader’s interpretation of his partial recognition. Moreover, there’s the faint hint of a progression between these three experiences. His “theory” about the subject of the painting (“partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons”) is finally given over in a more sober, ominous tone; he never says what exactly was so shocking about his appearance in the poncho that he strained his neck getting out of it; but in the case of waking beneath Queequeg’s arm, Ishmael’s able finally to make fun of himself in a more pointed manner: “You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Ishmael slowly and subtly develops a more distanced view of himself as the early chapters of MD pass.

The perspective of MK’s illustration of this moment in MD strikes a compromise between the point of view of the Ishmael wrapped up by Queequeg in bed and the one looking back on the experience, as if from above. Queequeg’s mostly blue arm enters the frame from the middle of the upper margin and extends most of the way down the canvas. It’s the left arm, elbowed right in a relaxed manner, showing the spousal embrace that checks the other’s still there rather than the one that keeps them there. MK opts for a more natural texture of arcs and swirls to create the effect of Queequeg’s arm camouflaged against the textures of the counterpane rather than the geometric pattern of blocks and triangles described in the text MD. The blue silhouette of Queequeg’s blue arm features ribbons and waves of kelp green whose line work coincides with that of the ribbons and waves comprising the surface of the counterpane, where they differ in color. The texture of the bedspread is colored in warm tones of red and yellow, contrasting sharply with the cool tones of Queequeg’s arm, and a visual blending of the two palettes is generated by foregrounded bands and waves of grey that traverse both the arm and its backdrop of the sunlit bedspread. Backdrop to all of this, still distinguishable beneath the paint is another inverted page from “The Ladder of Creation.”

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 025

Title: Indeed, partly lying on it as the arm did when I first awoke, I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.
(7 inches by 9.5 inches; acrylic paint on found paper; August 30, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 24

9/17/21, 8:23pm

23

The line from MD that inspires the next canvas becomes the first in a series of aphorisms isolated by MK and then rendered into an original, illustrative medium, which I liken to a data visualization. Only here there is no data per se to visualize but a parcel of language mapped upon the found page, in this case a page from a chapter in an academic volume about Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, two rails on a supposed “Ladder of Creation” runged by endless observations, the discourse of evolutionary science. 

The page is numbered 309 in its lower right corner, and the chapter title (“The Ladder of Creation”) is printed on the upper right margin opposite a poetic epigraph from one of Darwin’s cartoons; in the page’s lower left corner there’s a small black-and-white picture of a white bearded Alfred Wallace standing beside a blooming Eremurus robustus (aka a foxtail lily, or the candle of the desert), grown to nearly the full height of the jacketed man; Wallace is pictured wearing all black, so his round white head stands out prominently in the photograph, mimicking the pale tufted narrow head of the foxtail lily bloom oped atop a long-spiring stem barely distinguishable (given the low grade reproduction of the photo) from the grassy, wooded hillside in the background. All this you take in upside down because the page is turned on end. “The Ladder of Creation” reads rotated at 180 degrees, and Alfred Wallace dances on the ceiling with a blooming fox tail, where MK inks his illustration of “M.D. Aphorism #1”: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” 

9/18/21, 7:38am

The choice of found page here, given its inverted orientation, demonstrates MK’s recognition that the prejudice that initially biases Ishmael against his appointed bedfellow has a foot rooted in evolutionary science. The other foot, we’ll see, is rooted in a certain Christian spiritualism. Nurtured by Coffin’s teasing hints about the man’s identity, Ishmael’s bias grows into a towering angry fear by the time he’s figured out who Queequeg is – a “cannibal”* – when the man climbs into bed with him, tomahawk-pipe alight. The logic sustaining the distinction of savage and civilized is overturned or overwhelmed by two factors in the budding of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship: 

  1. Ishmael’s temperance movement allegiances, bespoken most plainly in the text of MD when he observes the barman Jonah’s establishment upon entering the Spouter Inn; apparently the greater light brought into the room with Coffin after Ishmael screams for the landlord upon being gruffly demanded by Queequeg to say who he is and then threatened when the harpooneer is surprised to find him hiding awake in the bed, is enough to tell Ishmael that the cannibal is a sober one, “clean” at least;   
  2. empathy for Queequeg himself, the first token of which is uttered immediately preceding Aphorism #1: “the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him”; this suddenly amicable attitude of Ishmael’s seems prompted by the not only “civil” but “kind and charitable” way Queequeg invites him back into the bed after Coffin has quickly explained the sleeping arrangement.

Driving both of these considerations that overturn the valuation of civilized and savage in this moment in the text of MD is Ishmael’s magnetic attraction to Queequeg that there will be occasion to talk about more with illustrations to come. For now I’ll just point out that for all Queequeg’s “unearthly” appearances and behaviors registered by Ishmael as he hides in bed and observes the harpooneer undress, in the greater light brought into the room with Coffin Ishmael notes that he finds the man attractive: “comely.”

MK’s illustration of the event of language in this “aphorism,” the distillation and reduction of the philosophy of the whole of MD into a single sentence, is comprised of two distinct visual elements:

  1. Just below the centerpoint of the topsy-turvy found page there’s inked a small dark sphere, having roughly the circumference of a fingertip; the perimeter of the circle is neatly defined on its outer edge and unevenly inked in black toward the center. (Where the black ink does not reach into the circle’s interior, it’s shaded grey.) Radiating outward from this center point of the diagram are 24 jagged shards of various lengths and breadths, variously colored (mostly) in shades of green, blue, purple, and yellow. The alteration in shards’ coloring doesn’t conform to a observable pattern; they’re all amix: 4 grass green, 4 sky blue, 4 turquoise, 4 ocean green, 4 yellow, 2 purple, one grey, and one shard (notably different from the rest) is red. Inked in black capital letters in 10 of the 24 shards are the individual words comprising the aphorism: “BETTER / SLEEP / WITH / A / SOBER / CANNIBAL” is arrayed on adjacent shards in the upper portion of the diagram; “THAN / A / DRUNKEN / CHRISTIAN” appears on shards on the lower half.
  2. Inked above this diagram, about a quarter of the length of the found page from its uppermost edge (according to the orientation of the printing, its lowermost edge) and extending three quarters of the way across the page, is a horizontal band or strip, terminating at the ends in a similarly jagged fashion as the shards in the diagram below. The band is divided into 12 colored blocks of various sizes – some wider, rectangle-shaped, some very narrow, like lines. The coloring of the individual blocks corresponds to that of individual sunburst shards of the diagram below; here too there is no definable pattern to the alteration in the colors used: 3 blocks of the band toward the right of center are colored purple; 1 wide block near the left end of the band and the narrowest block on the right are colored yellow; there’s a square of the grass green on either side of the band; and the rest of the blocks comprising the band are turquoise or ocean green. Above the band, inked in the same black capital lettering as the words written in the sunburst shards of the diagram below, appearing like a label: “M.D. APHORISM #1:” 

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These two elements of the illustration are tied together by the presence of language on the canvas: MK’s own autography writing out the quote from MD on the multicolored shard array, and identifying it as an aphorism with the words inked above the multicolored band. The latter works as a sort of legend or key for interpreting the aphorism’s mapping upon the former. The band of colored blocks serves like a designer’s mood board, establishing the tones and palette that will be carried over in the spacialization of the aphorism upon the shard array. The colors chosen to establish this mood are predominately cool and soothing, shot through with a bright, illuminative highlight of yellow: evoking the literal light Coffin is supposed to have brought into the room and also the more sober and rationalist frame of mind of which Ishmael is suddenly possessed. The palette aptly captures the rapid calming of Ishmael’s elevated mood that results from the genteel manner in which Queequeg invites him back to bed after frightening him out if it and the clarity with which Ishmael’s registers it in the text as a sort of decision or resolution on his part to accept the invitation: “What’s all the fuss I have been making about…[?]” 

Conspicuously, the only color featured in the shard array that is not reproduced in the legend-band above it is red; the sole red shard also happens to be the one upon which the word “CANNIBAL” is written. The associative meaning of the word, triggered by the color MK uses for its background on the canvas – red – does not match the established palette – cool, calm, and clear – but sets it off as an accent is said to “pop,” that is, only on condition it doesn’t pop the predominant mood of the defined space. The difference between the legend-band of “M.D. Aphorism #1” and the spacialization of the quotation on the shard array is a difference between Ishmael’s understanding of the import of his words and their unchecked meaning. If Ishmael were a Catholic, say, instead of a proud Presbyterian, he might discern a fault in the logic of the syllogism – “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” – if a Christian is understood to be a sort of cannibal. (“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me…”) Unless “cannibal” and “Christian” are regarded as opposites in some regard, then the aphorism amounts to Ishmael making a passing subjective preference known (to himself): “I’d rather not bed down with a drunk person.” All well and good, but how is he certain Queequeg is not drunk anyway? The sobriety of his religious observances before sleep, perhaps? That’d be another stab at the supposed oppositional meaning. For now, Ishmael rests on the compromise that Queequeg not smoke in bed – “This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied, and again politely motioned me to get into bed.” – and he claims to have never slept better in his life.

Not every aspect of the experience distilled in the aphorism, which MK illustrates in the shard array, is internalized by the meanings assumed or authorized by the aphorism’s speaker, which MK makes a color swatch of in the legend-band. Questions remain about how Ishmael reconciles his relationship with Queequeg and his own spiritual worldview. This was only their first meeting, after all. The icebreaker, as it were. In fact, once the thought occurred to me I could never escape it again, that the shard array with which MK spacializes the aphorism he’s isolated at the terminus of his long residence in “The Spouter Inn” (he’s been living in these rooms more than three weeks, remember, by the time Ishmael’s stayed one night), resembles the visual effect a bullet or sharp, pointed object hurled at great force would produce on a pane of glass or rather of ice. Perchance its the frozen November in his soul Ishmael perceives melting in him when he takes Queequeg for his “bosom friend,” where notably the word “cannibal” has been replaced in its (il)logical opposition to the the word “Christian”: “I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Ishmael may be learning and changing, but his lessons never seem done.


*It should be noted that the word “cannibal” is first introduced by the Ishmael narrating not the Ishmael speaking to the other characters in the scene, though Ishmael does call Queequeg a “cannibal” aloud when addressing Coffin after the landlord enters the room. Moreover, the word has been used three times previous to this moment in “The Spouter Inn”: first instance, when Ishmael is observing some of the “hacking, horrifying implement[s]” in the entryway upon first entering Coffin’s establishment and wondering what “monstrous cannibal and savage” might have gone “death-harvesting” with them; 2) second instance, when Ishmael is paraphrasing his considerations to himself upon learning that Queequeg is out engaged in the “cannibal business [of] selling heads of dead idolators” and on a Sabbath’s (very early) day; 3) third instance, when persisting in assuming his roommate is a white man even though Coffin has told him otherwise, Ishmael recollects a case he heard of a man being taken captive by cannibals and tattooed by them as an explanation of the circumstances in which Queequeg was tattooed. Death, religion, and race: those are certainly the big three for Melville’s Ishmael at this point in MD.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 024

Title: Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
(7 inches by 9.5 inches; ink on found paper; August 29, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 23

9/16/21, 11:23pm

23

I recall fondly a stage of my (then 3yo) son’s linguistic development, when he spoke in the third person for a brief term and also at that time would interject the phoneme a- (“uh”) before his verbs to form sentences based around verbal tenses and grammatical conventions he had not yet assimilated; for example: “Mark a-goin to pway…” “Mark a-want a pawsicle…” “Mark a-wuv Mommy.” That speech pattern is not unlike the one Melville adopts to write Ishmael writing the dialect of Queequeg into the text of MD. Queequeg only rarely speaks in the third person, but a consistent linguistic idiosyncrasy of his is to insert the phoneme “ee” (like the one in his name), after many of his spoken words; for example: “Queequeg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale!” One effect of the dialect attributed to Queequeg is to infantilize him (as when Ishmael opines on his “transitional state”), but of course this babying is accompanied by so much evidence of Queequeg’s power and capability and humility that the effect is all but irresistibly endearing.

Caveat: I’m currently reading more about the New Zealand native cultures Melville appropriated information about (primarily via Wilkes) to curate the assembly of cultural attributes ascribed to Queequeg, and it does dampen the romance the more you consider the living peoples and traditions literally cannibalized to render this representation of one of the most widely beloved characters of MD, a cannibal.

MK choses to illustrate not the first words spoken by Queeqeg in MD but his second utterance, where many of the same words are repeated – “Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!” Only those words that are bolded appear on the canvas, the ones capturing his verbal signature, formed in sharply blocked, black letters oriented vertically on a found page stacked with horizontally orientated charts, the wavelength of Queequeg’s verbiage growing perpendicular to their grain in 2-3 in. long leaflike formations (outlined neatly in the black marker) containing the fragments of his speech like peapods. The word pods are shot from white vines emanating at intervals from a column of interlaced blue scales composed by concentric bands of blue – Queequeg’s skin texture and tone in many (not all) of MK’s illustrations of him. The column of aquamarine swirl is centered on the found page with two protuberances in its sides in the upper third of the canvas, hollows in fact in the painted pattern, where a pair of pointilated red orbs float and stare.

Consider the difference it would have made to the effect of the canvas if MK had painted another example of Queequeg’s verbal idiom from this page, for instance, what he speaks when someone finally explains what Ishmael is doing in his room: “Me sabbee plenty.” To my eyes, the leafed aquamarine tower on the found page would serve just as well for that moment of restored calm as it does for what he utters while he flourishes his tomahawk in the dark toward the grunting body he’s discovered between his bed sheets, but the mood of the canvas would be altered radically by the presence of words other than those that command and threaten. The point of MK choosing the words he does is to capture Ishmael’s fear in the distorted view of the face and the partial recognition of the speech of the man who’s about to immediately put him at his perfect ease and melt his cold, cold heart.

Queequeg’s signature – the bold, red Q over the red infinity band – is in the lower left corner of the canvas.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 023

Title: “Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam- me, I kill-e!” again growled the cannibal…
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; ink, colored pencil and marker on found paper; August 27, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 22

22

2:23pm

If Queequeg were made into an action figure (the true Queequeg, I mean, not that Star Wars knock-off, which nonetheless made for a legendary toy), besides featuring certain distinguishing bodily traits, he’d be reasonably expected to come packaged with several accessories – an embalmed head or a poncho maybe, his harpoon and tomahawk-pipe almost certainly – but none of the items with which Queequeg is characterized by proxy in MD would be as justifiably sealed up with him forever in a collector’s cellophane sarcophagus as Yojo, the ebony idol he worships.

10:27pm

MK paints “Yojo” before painting the figure of the idol itself; the name occupies nearly the whole of the canvas: Y O appearing in the upper half, J O just below. The letters are outlined in a brushed band of rich, gum pink, with a band of blood red tracing the outer edge of these formations, and another layer of pink beyond that, then another layer of red… the pattern repeating until the bands of color are just peaks and arcs barely showing the contour of the letters they’re shaped by as they ripple out to the margins of the canvas. In the hollow left by all these concentric bands of pink and red, the Y O / J O reveals another labeled circuitry schematic beneath the paint, save for in the middle of each O where are rounds of the gum pink. This is only the second time MK’s canvas identifies a character by a name (excluding Queequeg’s signature), and the first is the first illustration of the whole project, identifying Ishmael. There are many different ways, however, that MK registers the influence of individual words and fragments of speech in the illustrations occasioned by them. In this case, Queequeg’s idol is not named at this point in the text of MD (“Yojo” is not said until 13 chapters later), so the moniker swimming in the background of this canvas is another anachronism designed by MK, whose interest seems drawn in part by the pictorial symmetry of the name, given its arrangement on the canvas.

The figure of Yojo is formed by a rudimentary black outline in the foreground of the canvas. Its back is rounded and its apparent front quite flat, the body terminating in a short stump for a base. The head is shaped like a slightly squashed letter b, featuring two ribbed conical formations with black ovals at the tapered ends, seemingly serving for eyes. A rectangular patch with rounded edges is painted on his chest with sparsely brushed s-shaped vertical lines running along its length, like a rough-hewn wood grain raised from the boundless waters pushing out against the little body invested with the power of their god.

Maybe it’s just me, but if you cock your head to the right when viewing this canvas the two large Os in the name Yojo lose their appearance as letters and look instead like a pair of glaring red eyes, the Y and the J similar but not exactly matching underlying markings.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 022

Title: …he fumbled in the pockets, and produced at length a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the color of a three days’ old Congo baby.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint on found paper; August 27, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 21

9/15/21, 5:28am

21

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, 20

20

5:41pm

MK’s first illustration of Queequeg is a portrait of the character as he (a veteran reader) sees the beloved harpooneer first entering the door to his room in the Spouter Inn, not as Ishmael reports seeing him. In this respect it’s a rather radical departure from any of the illustrations that have come before it or those that immediately follow it.

When Ishmael first sees Queequeg he’s still got that nightmare of a tangled black yarn of a bloodthirsty deadheader on the brain, and Queequeg “himself” – one of the most fully developed and memorable characters of the early portions of MD – only becomes known in bits and pieces. Like the painting in the entryway to the Spouter Inn, he’s only accessories, parts, and individual features – decontextualized fragments seen, heard, and felt – before becoming a fully-fledged personage to Ishmael, or to the reader. Indeed, Ishmael introduces Queequeg into the book almost precisely as he does the harpooneer’s poncho: as something he can’t quite recognize but nonetheless brazenly examines and meticulously describes. In this first portrait of the “infernal head-peddler” Queequeg is seen wearing the poncho so laboriously and lovingly drawn by MK in the illustration previous (reproduced here in all its wonderful detail), and since we know that poncho to have been left in the room while he was out on his errand, this should be the first clue that MK is deliberately stepping out of the seductive, overwhelmed reporting of Ishmael and making his own vision of Queequeg known, in its own time.

8:01pm

At the same time, some of the striking first impressions that overwhelm Ishmael’s faculty to recognize Queequeg seem to influence MK’s more developed and contextualized vision of the character: especially, Queequeg’s tattooing. The first sight of Queequeg’s face Ishmael gets in MD is conspicuously registered as one of those moments where the narrator’s confusion and, in this case, alarmed wonderment is passed on to the reader: “good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares.” Ishmael concocts a theory that the dark squares are “sticking-patches,” that the harpooneer has been in a dreadful fight and has had to see a surgeon, before realizing they’re tattoos. MK’s first rendering of this face not only differs in terms of the colors chosen to echo the markings – in MK’s illustration they’re resolutely blue – nor in their shape – here they’re drawn as a collection of overlapping scales, each comprised of concentric scallop-shaped lines rather than as squares – but, more importantly, the mood the figure of Queequeg strikes on MK’s canvas is serene and gentle, not threatening. The figure is stooped, the ovular head hung forward atop the steeply sloped body.

Queequeg’s tall harpoon stands prominently to the left of the figure occupying the whole left margin of the canvas, black at the handle and awash in red, which is also flecked across the top left quadrant of the canvas: another anachronism from this page of MD, since the harpoon was left in the room along with the poncho. There are two other distinguishing features of this canvas, however, that should indicate that this is a more deliberate, contextualized portrait of Queequeg than Ishmael provides at this point in the book.

  1. The choice of found page on which the illustration is made features a legible map of Pacific isles, situating the character in more of a concrete geographic and cultural locale than he ever is in MD; 
  2. In the upper right hand corner of the canvas there’s inked an uppercase thickly lettered Q, in red, just above a thinly drawn infinity symbol. This pair of marks becomes a signature of sorts, as we’ll see inspired by Queequeg’s own, which is featured on many of the canvases depicting the harpooneer. 

In comparison to the abject terror the appearance of Queequeg first instills in Ishmael, the only vaguely ominous feature of the figure MK illustrates is its lidless eyes, their red pupils pointilated about the edges, giving them a glaring, strained, and hazy look. 

I’ve ventured before the surmise that red eyes in MK’s illustrations of MD indicate a character in extremity, and the only theory that will answer for what extremity Queequeg might be said to be in – this character who never cringed and never knew a creditor – suggests that those blue markings shown all over as his face do not represent Queequeg’s artificial bodily markings as much as his natural bodily medium that it will be the arc of MK’s illustrations to render (back) unto infinity.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 020

Title: Lord save me, thinks I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler.
(8.5 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint, ink and marker on found paper; August 25, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 19

19

9/12/21, 7:45am

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. 

11:58am

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.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 019

Title: I can compare it to nothing but a large door mat, ornamented at the edges with little tinkling tags something like the stained porcupine quills round an Indian moccasin. There was a hole or slit in the middle of this mat, as you see the same in South American ponchos.
(8.5 inches by 10 inches; ink on found paper; August 23, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 18

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)