Poems that consider the instability of identity through fictional and religious characters.
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.
About the Author
Charles Kell is the author of Cage of Lit Glass, winner of the 2018 Autumn House Poetry Prize. His poetry and fiction have been published in the Brooklyn Rail, Laurel Review, Hobart, New Orleans Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Kestrel, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. He is assistant professor of English at the Community College of Rhode Island and editor of the Ocean State Review.
“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, 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.” — Donald Revell, author of The English Boat
“How does one hammer memory onto the page without nails or bullets? 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 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, author of Fish Carcass
“Poetry is rarely so vividly an art of the face to face as it is in 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.” — Susan Stewart, author of Cinder: New and Selected Poems