About the Book
In Ishmael Mask, Charles Kell reminds us that identity is precarious. Kell’s collection is a collage of the journeys and interior lives of various wanderers—from Ishmael, the son of Hagar, to Melville’s Ishmael, and from Pierre of The Ambiguities to Pierre Guyotat. Each poem strips back the mask and beckons us to witness humanity in its barest forms. Captain Ahab’s leg, Ishmael’s arm, and Pierre’s severed head serve as invitations to consider hunger and hope. The inspirations behind these poems—the Bible, Heraclitus, Melville, Guyotat, Tomaž Šalamun—are transformed by Kell, conjuring dreamscapes both dazzling and haunting.
Ishmael Mask masterfully allows a glimpse into the human experience of feeling lost—even when right at home, even in our own bodies.
Praise for Ishmael Mask
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.
—Valparaiso Poetry Review
The poet must have a Nietzschean ambition to see beyond the mirror, beyond the absurd mask of consciousness. Ishmael Mask speaks to this primitive damage, the inescapable futility underlying life and depicted by literary fiction. Consider “The Green Hat” sequence, a masterpiece of metaphysical anxiety. The flickering periphery is a warning, and yet here are the poverties of memory, addiction, and imprisonment, recanted by Charles Kell in Melvillian drag. And yet, these obsessions—like Pierre’s—under Kell’s skillful pressure, offer surprising musical comforts. Tender, gothic, and wonderfully catastrophic, Kell’s exhilarating poems flicker with both omen and mystery. Their dangers are sexy, lyrically precise, and elegiac. Their disquietude will leave you breathless.
How does one hammer memory onto the page without nails or bullets? Charles Kell wails his own mnemonic siren through the literary specter of Herman Melville’s Pierre, Kafka, etc., and we wail with him like a stone who can easily weep, but we don’t. There is touchless erection in this book and drowning and death and suicide and a “rat runs in small circles where the green hat used to lie” and may suggest life and pain and existential revisitations have cast shadows that are bigger than meadows. Perhaps in this collection Charles Kell is yelling from the top of his lungs, but all we could hear is wind and January or “black, red, green spiral of smoke.” Or perhaps Kell and his poetry are a cellar we all wish we could descend into to grab mason jars of beauty and grace in times of existential hunger and famine.
—Vi Khi Nao
We Americans are all imaginary orphans, forever seeking a new name, a new carapace, and the further adventure. “Call me Ishmael” is thus a motto more proper to our republic, and more forward-looking, than “E Pluribus Unum.” In Ishmael Mask, Charles Kell has parsed the fossil record of our orphancy in beautiful and unguarded detail; he has adventured much and withheld nothing. For those who come to poetry in search of a credible future, Kell will prove to be a true and unfailingly honest companion.
Poetry is rarely so vividly an art of the face to face as it is in Charles Kell’s Ishmael Mask: the faces of the dead, the faces in the mirror, the faces of the lover, blurred by presence and distance. These poems, shadowed by Melville and Kafka, are also a history of one poet’s encounters with the inscrutable relentlessness of fate and the inevitable privacy of suffering. “One can draw loss, draw frost, without anyone knowing,” he writes. Yet knowing here becomes his reader’s privilege, an unveiling slowly emerging through the voice of his haunting, indelible, lines.