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, 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, 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, 10

8/27/21 / 8/31/21

6:46am / 6:28am

10

Another collage: a found page showing an aerial view of a circuitry schematic plays host to a brow-shaped, blurry-edged mass painted black in the middle of the vertical rectangular diagram. Below this mass are three vertical, roughly formed strokes of deep blue paint. A cut-out of an ovular black frame with white matting strip has been glued on the page to surround this scene. Below the frame, occupying the bottomost edge of the canvas, a series of 3 images show a white silhouetted hand against a black background with its index finger extended, touching a ribboned band of white, which becomes more visibly pronounced – more pronouncedly white that is – with each successive image, as if emanating from the point where the finger makes contact. 

MD features a bizarre admixture of narrative styles and voices that tells us to call it by one name. One of the many eccentricities of this queer legion is its tendency to describe scenes without the benefit of context but in the surprised, confused, disordered, even frightening way in which many experiences are first witnessed. This is the case for the painting Ishmael notices hanging on the wall when he first enters the Spouter Inn. At first he can’t make out the subject: whether owing to the smoky, oily environs of the inn itself and its cumulative effect on the canvas or the quality of the painting itself is difficult to tell. MK’s choice of line to illustrate from this page reveals his interest and investment in not the contextualized, objective revelation of what the painting represents but Ishmael’s attempt to describe it for the reader before this moment of recognition has occurred. The series of collaged images illustrating a fingertip’s touch seems to me an attempt to capture this process of capturing the image, or rather to preserve its not being captured, since neither the title of the piece (the line from MD) nor the collage itself permits knowledge of the painting’s ‘true’ subject (the one Ishmael eventually ‘theorizes’ based on the aggregated wisdom of many learned men he consults on the subject).

A detail of this canvas which is only barely visible in MK’s original scan of this illustration and does not register in the image that appears in Moby-Dick in Pictures: are four lightly-painted patches of pinkish tan which extend from the edges of the collaged frame roughly at the intercardinal  points of the canvas’s perpendicular axes – the “nameless yeast,” perhaps, rendered only to be sometimes lost to view.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 010

Title: But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint and collage on found paper; August 13, 2009)