P I E R R O T ' S F I N G E R N A I L S
Eunuch Pierrot's feet are constantly shifting. He digs his big toes into the soles of his shoes to a rhythm determined by the objects around him: gaps in foliage, passersby, signage along the boulevard. He takes tiny steps forward, his back hunched. His arms hang loosely in their shoulder joints, but go rigid at the elbows. Eunuch Pierrot's knees rise high and flop to the side of his waist as he walks. His head pecks back and forth like a street pigeon's, but he knows he mustn't—absolutely mustn't—bob his head up and down. He moves shyly to a double-time drum, which only he can hear.
I want to castrate the impotent and double-castrate the eunuchs
Pierrot as he sings this, the softest of light—
you must know the extent of his impotence. One evening,
on a subway car, facing me, a clown
thin as a boiled fingernail hiding his spindliness in an embarrassment of an outfit. He was trying to leave nothing
behind—at most a slug trail of humor—to disappear, in this subway car, his legs willowy and hands lithe for the miming. And to everyone around him, he had already
disappeared, undone, even, the very fact of his birth.
His nose, fine as his little finger, and more so; his eyes, prettily crow-footed under the paint, from wincing or smiling
(the smiles in company and the winces, alone.) But he was, in his own right, ambitious—
his impotence was ambitious, and excessively.
He would look down at his feet, as it walked ahead of him, like a lonely widow walking her lap dog.
His ambition was plain:
like a thumb it drove his head down through his neck and into his chest, from where he would peer out at the world through the porthole over his heart.
I look at him there looking at no one,
and think back on something you once said of his writing: the content is radically free, but the form, it's totally straightjacketed. You wondered at this libertinage
choked out through clenched teeth:
It made perfect sense, seemed rather
closeted to me.
Pierrot wants to know how his language will appear to change if he, as now, holds his face very close to the paper and writes very slowly, concentrating on the inscription of each letter:
will he produce a more thoughtful text?
Sometimes, when he writes without premeditating his subject, he is more or less cracking his knuckles: it brings, at least, a similar satisfaction.
But when he writes like this, errantly—
with his cocked head far from the writing surface and his arm at nearly full extension—
his handwriting and the meaning behind the words it represents suffer a twin carelessness.
That he will keep his face so close to his notebook that he can smell the wet ink of his pen is his resolution—
that he will write more slowly, too, taking in the shapes as each letter palpates its way into form. But when he moves
his face away from the page:
vertigo, the table rising
the way a horizon conveys sideways beneath a still sky after one has watched the ground outside a moving vehicle.
Pierrot, what did you suppose would be there to approach?
There is an aesthetic object, the terms of which are determined by Pierrot. Is there a legitimacy to the struggles it voices?
For Pierrot to speak in anything but the terms of his privilege is for Pierrot to express himself in bad faith. The sole way for Pierrot to express himself in good faith is in absolute decadence. Pierrot encounters his good faith only when expressing ornamental thoughts.
Any aesthetic object made by Pierrot is ornamental to the subaltern discourse—the true discourse—in which struggle may be expressed in good faith. There is no space for struggle in Pierrot's writing. I don't care if this sounds severe, for it is not:
let him cry in silence.
Poetry is useless to the extent that Pierrot is its poet.
That one's given name cannot be changed without bending the law is the birthplace of fiction.
Pierrot speaks from the gulf behind his forehead.
Seen from above, his skull is a labored, though perfect, squircle,
a height from which it would be, gravitationally, impossible to fall,
the unsuturing of tongues as the lover parts.
Pierrot's struggle is that he has no transcendent struggle, but doesn't believe in a literature of leisure. This pins him into a corner
from which no one, including himself, wants to hear a word.
For fear of taking up space, he writes into hollow after hollow,
rather than build structures to inhabit.
(Were his writing a city, it would be an encampment of foundations with abandoned, half-constructed walls.)
And once, he felt so afraid of words that he wrote fewer and fewer of them, though the pressure of their containment inside him became dizzying.
Pierrot's pen is writing poorly, so he opens it, suspecting the ink must be running low.
No such thing: it's been a month since he replaced the cartridge, and it's still three-quarters full.
His pen doesn't falter for running dry—but for underuse,
for the ink of all the words he hasn't written,
now encrusted upon the nib.
Jubilant Pierrot skips on his toes with his center of gravity shifting from side to side. He holds his hands on his hips while he prances, and giggles without end. This is his most expressive state, but seems to occur less and less with age. He now understands it to be his most polarizing comportment. Often, skipping along, he can be heard exclaiming—so quickly, the words can hardly be understood—“Che bello! Che bello! Che bello! Che bello!”
The direction of Pierrot's life is ontological, rather than cardinal.
Eventually the only thing left to do is stop writing, when the hand holding the pen has grown numb, waiting for permission to write.
Even a misplaced ear can't unhear what it had no permission to hear.
The bedside table has been polished. The choice has been made to look over no one's shoulder but his own:
to retreat, slowly, even from himself.
Occasionally Pierrot happened upon a more gallant party that recalled to his mind the semen-scent of lindens in Tivoli and soft, tumbling
light, and being seventeen in Tours when springtime was finally come, and that anybody could have stayed home on these lovely nights
seemed impossible, the whole city having streamed out onto the streets to sit in the open-air cafés
or pig pile on the rolling grass along the promenades, and even when no one
seemed to believe in his happiness, and his song was mixing into the moonlight bathing Tours, he would, bock after bock,
empty whole pouches of tobacco in single nights—
half down his own windpipe,
half doled out to the handsomer men among the strangers he had only just met,—
and all of this under lights which looked increasingly like stars strung through the trees at the guinguette,
with his black-capped head, comet-tailed and wrenching
in circles, downwardly,
among the falling globes of blonde light
drawn against unclearly-located vertical
crimson surfaces, and the sky wasn't deep then, but purple,
so thick and soft, and lower than usual,
low enough he might even reach up and spin a warm cocoon of this cotton candy around his open hand as a gift for one of these strange new men,
but he willed himself to forget all that, to forget
the color of his skin beneath its paint, which fell away, like any color from his body,
almost mathematically, but the high-pitched, falling saw waves of light could not be
removed from the surfaces they fell upon—
only bocked out, in groups of three or four,
Let me watch you tie the laces of your slippers, Pierrot, so I can see the muscles work
under the skin of your forearm. Let me graft distraction onto this boredom,
so the fruits of one bear the other's seed.
Without a full-length mirror, you have to stand on the edge of your bathtub to view your whole outfit in the little looking glass above your sink.
No use reading the writing of the bored:
the hinges between images break away, being made of any material more rustable than brass.
Big Bad Pierrot walks with chest puffed and spine awkwardly stiff. His head tilts slightly downward atop his straight spine, and pivots like a sclerosed joint. With each step, the balls of his feet fall toe-first, and his knees snap backward ever so slightly. Big Pierrot maintains a lower center of gravity than any other Pierrot. He assumes this posture when he wants to achieve the feeling of invisibility.
Is the reason
Pierrot doesn't have any poems
to write that
he doesn't think
about poems through
out the day like
he used to back
when they really mat
tered to him back
when the poems
he wrote taught
him how to live
like a user's man
ual written in spit
on moss when
poems were edible
dense as the night
and they staved off
hunger and jeal
ousy let him
know what it
felt like to under
stand himself to
have a purpose to
fall under the
light of everybody
else's suns no this
poetry is dead the
best he can
do is hope it
returns like a
haunt him when
he tries to
fall asleep makes
him break out
in a cold sweat
was never there
It's bad to see, bad to pay attention to, anything at all.
His bed is unmade: that's bad to see. His window screen is broken: he'll get around to it. Unwashed laundry piled on his bed: just sleep under it, dear.
The indoor light is spare, miasmic, could choke a forest of mushrooms with its dimness. Pierrot works, as if for the first time, on this thing he has heard called Writing.
To be here, alone, under a tree in a field, but indoors, sitting by the running sink, listening to the pen, scratching as he writes
as if to say, “I won't be giving up my ink so easily.”
The first thing Colombina asked Pierrot to do when he introduced himself to her at the brasserie was go to the bathroom, measure his penis, and text her the measurement. “Oh, but do I measure it soft?” he wondered on his way into the stall. He decided he would give it a good think and make up a plausible figure to tell her. He didn't want to make it sound too small (he had seen the ridicule that could bring,) but surely he didn't want to make it sound too big, for fear the very thought might scare her away. He sat on the toilet and fingered his flaccid member through his baggy white suit, imagining how wonderful it would be if only it would change shape. At first, he thought of it growing so heavy that it tore a hole in his suit, plunging down into the toilet bowl, and sliding headlong against the porcelain into the plumbing; he couldn't help but imagine flushing the toilet while it was clogged like this—all the water building up in the piping as the toilet labored to flush, until the pipe burst and he was sent flying on a wave of sour water, flesh, and hardware. Then he imagined how it might eel down his pant leg, over the seat, and along the inside of his thigh, wrapping itself around his calf a couple times before kissing his ankle and sliding underneath his foot to hide away, embarrassed by its newfound change of state. Next he feared it would simply stay the same, or that, even worse, maybe his was unique in that it would somehow grow smaller as it engorged, until it receded into his crotch like an inferior bellybutton. Pierrot wondered. At the very least, he knew he didn't want it any smaller than he dreaded it already was, so he told her what he thought of as a gentle medium. 10.5 inches, he noted, fumbled a good-by while handing it to her, and rushed out of the establishment.
Deemed responsible for his actions, Pierrot thinks three times before he so much as speaks.
Without accountability, his world is a book of glass with ice for ink.
Pierrot, of course, is the source of all his own problems:
his paranoia is the spring that draws this noxious water to the surface.
Sometimes he dreams of putting himself to sleep in the middle of crowded rooms: an act of almost coquettish defiance.
The false enthusiasm in his ear is making him nauseous. He's in a bad mood. He needs to take a step back and tell himself a different narrative:
The way out has already been provided, and it hasn't been taken.
Or there never was a way out, because it wasn't opted for.
Only he took it that way, and it wasn't his to take—not even in delusion.
Running Pierrot makes swift, jerky movements, kicking his legs out in front of him with his toes pointed straight ahead, the soles of his feet parallel to the ground. When his legs are forward, his arms are held back, and vice versa. Even after a good stretch, he is unable to run in a very straight line.
Pierrot has no ambition left: we've let it drain away by never asking him to share with us its fruit.
Please don't leave him more than one choice.
As night turns to day, he begins to feel the troughs of his sobriety.
“Z is not a poetic letter. It's too hard to use for poetry.
H is a painterly letter, its breath half a marathon long.”
Pierrot is a slight clown, but not (yet) entirely invisible.
He only wears such baggy clothes for fear that, from certain vantage points, in more form-fitting attire, he would disappear,
revealing a surreptitious two-dimensionality.
Pierrot was afraid of heights until, brought home from a city where it had rained for months
by some unavoidable appointment,
he dreamed of crossing the threshold of black clouds,
saw the sun shining over their topsides.
Elevation, then, became associated for him with deliverance,
especially in winter, when the clouds were at their most glacial, dispossessed of the roundness commonly associated with them:
the hinge of their symbol as lofty, silver-lined bringers of relief.
Pierrot is just so tired of fighting the air for that feeling of relevance in the conversations he admires
that the air puffing from his ears has turned to vapor,
and some powder, like cinnamon, has fallen from the trees into the hollows of his male skull,
and, wettened by his cerebrospinal fluid,
turned to an ink which has blotted out his ambitions,
letter by letter.
Jealous Pierrot carries a stick in one hand and holds it over his shoulder, which looks like the grip of a bindle, but which he thinks of more as a bayonet rifle. He marches with his shoulders rising and falling to a two-time rhythm, now counted out in triplets, like so: clippity-clop, clippity-clop—bock, bock, bock.
Pierrot doesn't want to be one of those people who cancel dinner plans at the last minute because they're “in a mood,”
but he is also sensitive to the possibility of his being unpleasant company.
In the end, he tends to stay home,
not because of his bad way or the quality of his company,
but because of the momentous anxiety brought on by his vacillation between these two possibilities
and his inability to determine which would represent a more liveable excuse.
Across a bay there is the body.
It oscillates between the body I dream of when I'm not dreaming of Pierrot, the body he dreams of when he's not dreaming of me.
There is a blinding light in the mirror, but only from where I'm standing.
Do you ever get curious about what I write in this book, Pierrot?
You should get yourself a tonic if you're so anxious you've been walking into rooms and forgetting your reason for being there.
You know the two things you want and want to believe they're not contradictory.
“I'm getting used to writing again,” he says.
“And I'm watching you from this stupid Hell.”
There’s a certain kind of writer’s block Pierrot encounters, which comes from his fear of saying the wrong thing, from admitting what he doesn't want me to know and, by way of this admission, creating the possibility for me to find exactly that in what he's written.
(Write the wrong word in his notebook and already he feels it's been broadcast twice around the world, even if nobody but he has seen it.)
It makes you wonder: does his reliance on symbolic language originate not from a desire to overcome some insufficiency of language for the sake of revealing-more, but from a desire to conceal:
to say enough (which is to say: to not omit), and even so, to willfully obscure, in the face of his ability to write clearly?
It’s too late!
He's caught himself thinking that all language is both insufficient and necessarily symbolic. And now he's thinking it’s necessarily symbolic because necessarily insufficient. Worse yet: all language is both necessarily symbolic and necessarily insufficient because materially other than what it addresses.
It really is too late, isn’t it, to turn back?
It’s like he's laid a bear trap without meat in a region with no bears and didn’t cover it with leaves, so no animal but himself, once he's forgotten he put it there, could ever be so stupid as to get snared in it.
Cocky Pierrot has a walk similar to, but less extreme than Big Bad Pierrot's. His spine is stiff, though not too stiff, and his legs bend 15° further at the knees. Sometimes Cocky Pierrot walks with one hand on his waist, but more often, when he lifts his legs, he thrusts his chest forward, his arms held out before his breast like a bird of prey.
Whenever he tosses a sou into the fountain, sees a shooting star, or finds an eyelash on his cheek, Pierrot simply wishes the word “poetry.”
He thinks of it as a workaround to the specificity of most wishes:
poeisis, the art of making, of writing, of singing, travel and focus, love, relationship, self-care, hygiene.
Vague as it is aspirational, “poetry” means very little if taken in its practical sense; etymologically taken, however, he feels it upend the storied uselessness of the genre to which is refers and empower it absolutely:
poeisis, no matter the circumstance.
“I will always wait for you.”
“Why, thank you, Pierrot.”
If he is still waiting for me, I hope it's light out where he is,
that the coming night contains no corrective, but a jamb—
a stop to ensure some lemony aroma may creep into his bedroom to remind him of me,
to turn his destitution into a gas, a light,
or a pocket of air.
Kit Schluter is translator of Marcel Schwob’s The Book of Monelle, Jaime Saenz’s The Cold, Amandine André’s Circle of Dogs (in collaboration with Jocelyn Spaar), and several forthcomings. His own writing can be found in BOMB, Boston Review, Hyperallergic, and the chapbook Inclusivity Blueprint from Diez. He is currently on a year’s fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts for further translation of Marcel Schwob, and coedits & designs for O’clock Press. He lives in Oakland, CA.
Published November 2016.