Charles Kell: Review by W.J. Herbert

Charles Kell, Ishmael Mask (Autumn House Press)

The Wanderer’s Embrace: Searching for the Unknowable Self in Charles Kell’s Ishmael Mask

How can we archive the unknowable self? In Ishmael Mask, Charles Kell asks us to consider our existence, not in the context of a physical and metaphorical cage we might free ourselves from, but in the context of our wanderings through an often surreal, ultimately unknowable landscape. The literary characters who accompany him become subsumed into collection’s searching self, fellow companions whose creators he freely borrows from. They pull him back from the abyss and provide a frame to temper chaos. In Kell’s hands, the act of art-making becomes the means by which we embrace our deep sense of connectedness.

In Kell’s previous collection, the 2018 Autumn House Press Prize-winning Cage of Lit Glass, an incarcerated speaker’s “…words are wheels working to be set free.” But rather than attempting his escape, the speaker in Ishmael Mask examines the nature of the cage, its contradictions and absurdities. As with many of the collection’s poems, “The Dead Letter” is wonderfully ironic.

I crawl naked
in circles on a mountain
of femur-shaped spirea.

This is what the Bible
promised. I am.
A beetle, fingers & toes
flail in the wind.

The “I am” in the poem refers to God’s pronouncement in Exodus 3-14. But read without a period, the sentence elides with Kafka’s image of a man turned beetle.

In a collection that references both the biblical Ishmael and the Melville character, the nature of our existence is sometimes absurd, but always unknowable. In his essay, “The Belly of the Whale: Archive and Access in Melville’s Moby-Dick,” Garrett Urban maintains: “At the heart of Moby-Dick is a fundamental anxiety concerning, not lost information, but rather that information cannot be reached in the first place.” In Kell’s collection, within the context of a child’s tragic drowning, a friend’s horrific death, and a speaker who overdoses, the reader of “Frames” is reminded

…that one can draw
loss, draw frost without anyone knowing

what it is, draw the color of night, draw—
for the final time—the light reaching the trees into nowhere.

In this “nowhere” of existence, the speaker of Ishmael Mask is as lost as the one who appeared in Kell’s Cage of Lit Glass. In this new collection’s “Pierre’s Severed Head,” the head “still hungers” as it sits propped “in the middle of a forgotten wood,” reminding us that Dante’s speaker in the Inferno found himself similarly lost. In “Something Dead That Doesn’t Know It’s Dead,” the speaker dissolves not only himself, but the poem, too:

Let go of the brush,

the pencil in your outstretched hand.
Pretend you are silently sliding in a field
that is, in fact, a sheet of black glass.
I have had this feeling for so long

that I’m not really here. Lapis, grosbeak,
spruce—words mean nothing to me.

Though often sympathetic toward his lost speaker, Kell sometimes mocks him in wonderfully inventive poems. In “Poetry,” which opens the collection’s third section, the speaker in his cell dreams of the “wine-dark sea” as if he might be a heroic Odysseus. But he pivots, likening himself to a pig fetus that students might dissect, then pivots again, saying: “the monster should move no more,” as if he were Dr. Frankenstein’s repulsive, yet repentant creature.

Though its speaker is lost, the collection is rife with literary characters whose words serve as anchors, soothing reader and writer with the familiar, even when they condemn or threaten. The phrases in “Ahab’s Leg” are lifted directly from Moby-Dick, with words omitted, lines and spaces inserted, and capitalizations added. The result is a pastiche of 19th-century warnings about grief and hell’s despair spoken in a reassuringly familiar archaic language.

The title character in Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, through his presence throughout the collection, is more than anchor, almost a friend. In the four lines that comprise “Sober,” the speaker says:

Lights are off & a cigarette lit.
I try to call Pierre for a visit.

Nothing. Small black
crack in dry whitewall.

Kell’s use of appropriated language helps to create an “amalgam with a stylistic unity,” explained Pier Paolo Pasolini with reference to the way the artist “contaminates” his work by appropriating styles, icons, and ideologies from periods and works of art. In “Ishmael’s Arm,” the 19th-century language tattooed on Ishmael’s arm can’t locate the wearer, or our lost contemporary transcriber, yet the recitation of whale’s dimensions—Kell’s insistence on its presence in the collection, acts not only as a balm, but a bodily frame against chaos.

But, if using the tools of his trade, the poet is performing an ultimately hopeful act, what are we to make of the collection’s seven “Green Hat” poems? The green hat, on the surface is a lost object and is, perhaps, a comment on the poet’s attitude toward the trappings of society. But do the poems also echo the act of discarding a tool as if, in despair, the poet has cast aside his pen?

In “Green Hat, Day 2,” the hat lies in a storm drain, the poem’s concluding lines the same words Ishmael uttered in Moby-Dick when he felt the inadequacy of his writings about the leviathan of the deep, “This whole book / is but a draught—nay, / but a draught of a draught.” In “The Green Hat, Day 5” the writer casts off his pen when he says: “Let’s / drive holes into our centers / where words no longer / fit.”

These poems serve a vital function: they are counterpoint to the speaker’s dedication to the act of writing and his deep sense of connectedness. Here, in “The Idiot’s” fourth section titled “Carrie” he tells her

For thirteen years
I’ve floated in the atmosphere

ready to burst, the brown strands
of your hair keeping me there.

All this time I’ve been drawing you.

Just as Melville’s Pequod circumnavigated the globe, Kell’s collection circles back, concluding as the writer remembers himself as an unknowing child, his face “reflected from a metal / cup—black circles where my eyes / should be—open, dark.” But, in the penultimate poem, “Amerika,” we share his sense of connectedness, despite his embrace of the void. The setting is a field somewhere in Kansas where water is absent, but hoped for, and a missing person is sought.

I plan to rent a gray sedan
and go looking for him.

I will bring the bees
asleep in a white box.
A copy of Ovid.
I know the song by heart,

the one cardinals sing in November,
before the snow falls.
We might rob a bank or sit
on the edge of some cliff

pondering the vast void.
The circus will be in full swing,
we will sip a wine
made to taste like fresh grasses.

In attempting to archive the unknowable self, the speaker of Kell’s Ishmael Mask wanders through a complex poetic landscape. Those who accompany him are not only his readers, but the many writers and artists whose words and ideas resonate throughout collection. Ishmael Mask explores obsession, passion, and absurdity, leading us to the edge of the abyss. When we arrive, rather than falling, we revel.

W.J. Herbert’s debut collection, Dear Specimen (Beacon Press, 2021), was selected by Kwame Dawes as a winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series and awarded the 2022 Maine Literary Award for Poetry. Her work, awarded the 2022 Arts & Letters/Rumi Award for Poetry, also appears, or is forthcoming, in The Atlantic, Best American Poetry, Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere.

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