Book Review

In Ishmael Mask, Charles Kell’s second collection of poetry, the poet extends his exploration of identity associated with substance abuse, survivor’s guilt, and male friendships from his first collection, Cage of Lit Glass (Autumn House Press, 2019), which I reviewed in conversation with Nicholas Hauck for The Maynard in December 2019. While the themes from Cage of Lit Glass haunt the poems of Ishmael Mask, drug use and drinking, grief and guilt associated with a fatal car accident and DUI sentence have been consigned to the background by time and distance: “The scene moves farther away.” In Ishmael’s Mask, close relationships with men from the past flicker alongside a “marriage / of tongue to salt” with “my wife.” While Cage of Lit Glass attends to these subjects via the theme of confinement, Ishmael Mask does so through the lens of disguise.

Charles Kell may be wearing a mask “mostly straight white,” but I found an artistic queerness that subverts these sometimes-narrative poems with the surreal and absurd. I experience the poems as restless, “mast-tied,” and “doused” with an accelerant. The poet holds “the matches” and “the can / of gasoline.”

Throughout these poems, Kell seems to yearn to burn off the fictitious and bring to light the real aspects of identity. To that end, he explicates the phrases of smoke and the gaze of mirrors: “Smoke hiding half of my face” and “the dim mirror.”  Though he knows the “lies  / / buried deep” and the “truths— / insular, vicious,” he cannot help but seek a glimpse free of the obscuring or embellishing of the truth. Both elemental and human nature prevents seeing clearly. Whether “smoke,” “smudge,” or “blur,” something “blotted / out” “a face, blocking / …expression.” Lines in the poem “Pittsburgh,” make clear the existential problem:

The gods have given me ears to hear,
fingers to write. But they have not
given me eyes.

It is futile to look, yet “[w]herever I turn there’s my face.” This is “a face that is not really a face,” but a mask. The mask of food eaten, the “mask of gin” drunk, the mask of medication taken, the mask of desire, and the mask of the observer.

The sequence of seven poems entitled “The Green Hat” animates Kell’s thinking about existence and change. The green hat, “stranded on the side / of the street” and “making shadows,” suggests a loss that “holds ground,” an absence whose “ghost waits.” This poetic suite acts like an artistic study; the poet experiments with the various textures of seeing, truth, and existence, whether “sodden, thick, frozen; / slush damp [or] snowy.” The study resonates with futility, though, because one can draw “no conclusion” from “what remains.”  A “feeling” for what is there is promptly countered by what is “not really here.” Welcome to unreality, Kell’s “philosophy of bent image, ontology / / of existence.”

Throughout the poems, this “quiet stampede” of oxymorons, mirror images, Janus’s faces, and the other sides of coins continuously flip. The presence of the green hat simultaneously suggests the absence of its wearer. The mask of incarceration implies the mask of sobriety. The mask of being on the other side of “forty” suggests the mask of anticipating “where I am going.” But then, “I am thinking in symbols and I must quit.”

Kell’s flinty, ironic, fatalist tone is lyrically apprehensive and well-matched to detailing the mask of maleness—the strength and importance, pain and brutality, and power struggles among men and within “every / man”:

a wild ass
of a man,

his hand
against every
every man’s
against him.

The poet also wears the mask of a son “in the cemetery” with “what’s left of [his] / father’s ashes.” The mask of grief.

In the poems, some masks are emotional or psychological. Other masks are theatrical or literary. Melville, Kafka, Shakespeare, and Homer, among other writers, philosophers, and painters, perform the role of interlocutors. The setting of the poems in the Midwest’s cold season offers both ambiance and context: “Each day in Ohio / is winter and more winter.” In Ohio, the poet negotiates with his past self, shame, and crimes, and he negotiates with time and death—those experiences and relationships that mold the various masks of identity. Though the poet may wish to be one whose “head [is] held / high, one who never looks back,” he cannot help but be referential. The past fumes; “to avoid … reflection— / / impossible.”

Impossible reflection, dear readers, is where love and art intersect, where Charles Kell’s mix of narrative and absurdist poems live their lives in words both “deeply felt” and “unfeeling.” But this presents a “false dichotomy,” reminding us “that one can draw / loss, draw frost without anyone knowing.” When reading Charles Kell’s “sensualist” poems I encounter a poet willing to allow all aspects of self to become “unmoored,” even unmasked.

In Ishmael Mask, Charles Kell “has tea with oblivion” and emerges from his “cell.” He faces his human and artistic struggles with the cages and masks of his identity not to resolve anything, but to remember the “whole world right / where you stand, there isn’t another.”

About the Reviewer

Jami Macarty is an independent editor and a writer of essays, reviews, and poetry who lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Vancouver, British Columbia, where she teaches contemporary poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University. Jami is the author of The Long Now Conditions Permit, winner of the Test Site Poetry Series Prize (forthcoming University of Nevada Press, 2024), The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award - Poetry Arizona, and four chapbooks, including The Whole Catastrophe (forthcoming Vallum Chapbook Series, 2024) and Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. Jami is the recipient of financial support from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, BC Arts Council, Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity, Community of Writers, and Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, among others. Jami's poems appear in the anthologies Cascadia Zen, Resistance, and Rumors Secrets & Lies and in literary magazines such as The Capilano Review, Colorado Review, Interim, Vallum, and Volt. To learn more about Jami, her writing practice, and forthcoming publications, visit: