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)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 17

17

9/9/21, 10:00am

Ishmael’s dialogue with Peter Coffin, landlord of the Spouter Inn, is his first sustained engagement with another character in MD. Given the earnest learnedness (or learned earnestness) with which Ishmael has represented himself up to this point, it’s a relief to read someone freely sporting with him.

Coffin has a great deal of fun teasing Ishmael, especially when it comes to pairing him with a pagan harpooneer for a bedmate. Given his proprietorship of a low-end lodging establishment in the then whaling capital of the world, New Bedford, teasing Ishmael can be chalked up to a form of hazing that one can imagine him not infrequently doling out to those customers who seem particularly out of their element in his Spouter Inn. “Spouter,” following the usage in Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, is synonymous with whalers and whalecraft; prior to this adoption, “spouter” was a common seaman’s moniker for a (south seas) whale. While Ishmael tries to rebuke Coffin’s gibes – assuring him: “‘I’m not green.’” – the landlord knows he’s never been shown a face like Queequeg’s. As the light of the next morning will reveal to Ishmael, however, he’s a less common breed in the streets of New Bedford than the “‘dark complexioned chap’” out in the bitter cold of a winter’s night trying to sell his last “‘‘balmed New Zealand head.’” Such “‘curios’” are not wholly uncommon sights in Coffin’s world, and he knows Ishmael doesn’t have the experience to fill in the gaps for himself about what might be meant by the harpooneer being unable to sell his head, so he doles out just enough discourse to keep Ishmael guessing and panicked – never lying precisely, but never giving the whole truth until he’s worked Ishmael into a “towering rage” and the latter has approached him coldly and wildly threatened “‘criminal prosecution.’” Coffin releases Ishmael from his yarn gently and puts him to bed.

MK’s illustrates a moment in this exchange prior to Coffin clearing up the matter of Queequeg being out late peddling the last of his curios (picked up on his last voyage to sell at port for profit before shipping out again). “…‘ain’t there too many heads in the world?’” Coffin wonders aloud when Ishmael seems affronted by the idea of selling one. On a found page featuring mostly text itemizing various sorts of hand needles, there are more than 80 different bodiless heads painted, inked, and sketched in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colors. The heads’ eyes are their most prominent feature: some are anthropomorphic, some resemble the vizor-eye of Bulkington (in 14), some the balene-band of the young fellow (in 13), some are a series of dots or mere lines. Some of the heads are drawn rudimentarily – like the inverted yellow triangle with a line across its lower vertex for a mouth and two dashes below its uppermost, longest edge for eyes – and some feature abstract designs and markings. The only distinct feature of a red, tombstone-shaped head with two white dots for eyes is a golden cross with a four smaller lines extending from its center on the diagonals, like a Christmas star; the shape of this marking mimics the arrangement of the 80+ heads on the canvas as a whole. The heads are concentrated, converging and overlapping most along the X and Y-axes of the canvas, larger in size and greater in detail toward its center and smaller toward its margins, giving the illustration the vague look of a data visualization.

6:36pm

After Ishmael gets fed up with Coffin’s “‘mystifying and most exasperating stories’” regarding his prospective bedmate and threatens legal action on his host, given that the only logical conclusion he is able to come to with respect to the head-peddling harpooneer is that he’s mad and that Coffin would be therefore criminally liable if he forces Ishmael to share a room with him – after presenting this logic to the landlord in the span of two hundred words – Coffin replies (I’m paraphrasing): “that’s a whole lot of talk for a man who farts like everyone else.” He then provides Ishmael the context he requires to understand the dialogue he’s been having, and a subtext of his query about there being too many heads in the world comes into focus: “Here’s one head too many, or too much head for one head to hold. In all my years, never such a spouter in the Spouter!”

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 017

Title: “…ain’t there too many heads in the world?”
(8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; acrylic paint, ballpoint pen, ink and pencil on found paper; August 22, 2009)