[Canarium Books; 2020]

Pierrot’s Fingernail’s is poet-translator Kit Schluter’s debut full-length collection of original poetry. Much of its contents has been previously published and adored as chapbooks, or in magazines both big & small dating at least as far back as 2011, with the self-published Journals & other poems (O’clock Press). This was followed by Inclusivity Blueprint (Diez, 2015) and then, fresh from Schluter’s new home in Mexico City in 2019 came The Good in Having a Nuclear Family (Despite Editions) which also contained drawings by the author. Similarly, this time around, light sketches of the eponymous commedia dell’arte sad clown known as Pierrot grace the front and back ends of the new longer work. Inside are mostly one-page prose poems appearing in tidy paragraph forms, but there are several longer, serial poems in sections as well, and some with shorter, more taut lines of verse. The book is testament to the resilience of poetry as a medium in general, a reminder that it is a unique form within writing,  placing the highest premium on a sense of timelessness, willful absurdity, or even obscurity. This enables it to become, as others have posited before, a kind of “news that stays news” despite whatever arduous times of perhaps constant bad news that we, the readership & the author alike, may be irrevocably living through as we read and/or write.

The glacial pace of most mid-to-large scale literary publishing efforts in print more or less ensures that any book will be remarkably out-of-touch with the times it exists in by the time it comes out. There is such a lag between the moment of inception — that which starts the poet writing their work, which must in some manner be a response to their immediate times, however outlandish and opaque their style may be — to the moment the book is in our, the reader’s, hands. So poetry makes up for this discrepancy with its aim to solicit from the reader a radical engagement with the language, which for many may seem like a big ask . . . a bit lofty, to say the least. The idea is to show all that language can do more than just description or storytelling; we become too set in our ways with the words we use, how we use them, and how we permit, or (in worse cases) forbid others to use them. If we succumb to the idea that poetry is something extra rather than essential, and that therefore it must be relegated to the proverbial back-burner of not only what might be called literature but of our ailing society at large, we succumb to the idea that we can do nothing to improve our language’s meaning in its constant decay. Language is the most essential tool we have, no matter what’s the task ahead in any realm. It is the collective frontline of our human experience, and poets are at work in its trenches all their lives, for all of our betterment. 

Schluter in particular has drunk deep the fine draughts of a lot of French and Spanish lit, both ancient and modern. The epigram at the beginning of Pierrot’s Fingernails comes from many centuries ago and the French troubadour poet Guilhem de Peitieu. It would seem apt as a possible kind of one sentence manifesto of Schluter’s poetics: “I’ll write a poem about nothing at all.” The fact that this mode of thinking has resonated with authors for hundred years, that it is not a Modern, post-modern, or millennial invention, proves something about poets’ consistent interest in the transcendent, atemporal nature of poetry, and if Schluter is quoting this then it must be some kind of wellspring of an idea for him. You can take the poet out of their times, but you cannot take the timelessness out of their poetics (if they, the poet, are really any good, arguably). 

Schluter’s credits as a translator are numerous. First and most notably, he translated Marcel Schwob’s The Book of Monelle for Wakefield Press in 2012; Schwob’s book, which originally came out in France in 1894, is known as a major work of the Symbolist movement. Certainly influenced by writers like Schwob, Pierrot’s Fingernails smoothly traffics in styles of lurid imagery and metaphor that could be called French Modern or even decadent, as the author himself is quick to point out throughout the collection, with sudden self-reflexive literal jolts. In this way he makes the reader more aware the starkness of the words on the page, as in the first section of the verse-poem “Inclusivity Blueprint”:

But remember. You are only here as a process,
as a space a material forced out of its native structures
can return to
when the stakes get raised
even one notch too high.

Coming out of his New York days, this poem is like a simple verbal diagram of this author’s particular poetic sensibility as being a member of a collective of other poets while also having one’s own unique solitude to cherish. So one important theme of this collection seems to be the possibility of positively losing one’s self, while also always leaving one’s own unmistakable mark, the human touch, if nothing else.

These poems display an interest in a communal poetic consciousness that transcends individuality, while certainly not canceling it out entirely either. For instance, in the eminently readable acknowledgments section that follows the eponymous long poem at the end of the collection, we learn that the explanation of the poetics may be a poem in itself, in the case: there is the pleasant notion of not knowing who wrote what sometimes, of authorship being a shared experience among many. This may be a bold step towards the poet’s goal of creating a new common language, that poets together work towards. Schluter notates how some of the enclosed work was written ” . . . while falling asleep and listening to a recording of Jean Day’s January 2, 1988 reading at the Ear Inn . . . while attempting and failing to transcribe by hand [erica kaufman’s] reading . . . ” 

In other moments, Schluter’s prose poems here have a riddle or parable quality to them. The author flirts with a kind of morbidity in narration: “the last thing I’d want to be is a copycat suicide” and there is a lurking sort of perversity and mischievous nature; talking about “a bag of urine in sunlight” (which, as an image is about as crystal clear as it gets . . . like a smack in the face to any/all ideas of poetic propriety, the poet not afraid of bodily functions) and an almost-but-not-quite flippantly mentioned idea of protest, a kind of summation of a common story involving a fall from grace, perhaps, or like a loss of innocence, following protest: “First a revolution, / later a holiday, / later the bank buys back the blood.”

Pierrot’s Fingernails really is accessible while being utterly surreal at times, full of parenthetical fascinations, but not crammed with a bunch of showy proper nouns and reference points. Schluter writes instead of the name as “a site of paradise,” suffusing it with a much-needed sense of dignity. To name is to try to come to know the thing better, to make it appear closer to one’s own being. It’s better than the name as currency, of advertising, marketing. Another theme throughout the book seems to be the idea of being led by the author into some kind of gorgeous room (the word “stanza” after all comes from the Italian, stanza means room) where everything is opulent and seemingly perfect, but there is just something in the air and the tone of voice that leads you to believe that there is some little thing that is just a little odd somewhere.  It could be some fragment from some incomplete translation. There is always being something totally unexpected in this tableau, this setting. This oddness becomes like the diamond at the end of the drill, like the “punctum” detail of a photograph that theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes discussed in his book Camera Lucida: “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” 

The character of Pierrot may be an interlocutor, like an avatar, it seems, for the author’s former and/or future self, or simply a kind of amusing pet for the purposes of the poem. In the narrative of this long poem in parts, if the poem could be said to have a narrative, Schluter first meets the clown on the subway, Pierrot first appears to somehow represent the figure of some other writer whom Schluter both feels superior to while also somewhat pities, while also perhaps worrying that he might become more like them, if he can’t help it. Then, towards the end (no spoilers here) Pierrot is felt more viscerally as an omnipotent force of some kind, a dyed-in-the-wool philosopher of decadence, ornament, art for art’s sake aesthetics. In a way though, the long poem is a kind of heartfelt critique of Pierrot, or what could be called “Pierrot”-ness, something Schluter feels both drawn towards on the hand, while also occasionally repulsed by. The memories the poem rattles off could be the author’s own, or someone else’s, a reminiscence: 

[ . . . ] when no one
seemed to believe in his happiness, and his song was mingling
with the moonlight bathing Tours, he would, bock after bock,
empty whole pouches of tobacco in single nights —
half down his 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, downward,
among the falling globes of blonde light

It may be a cautionary tale the author tells himself, and then also to others to remind them, a case study in obscurity, a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment for the poet, but also in part a veiled autobiography. The poem becomes a place filled with many others. Some may be real-life friends, others ghosts, animals, pets, other languages, fellow poets, old and new. Another feeling imparted is that of a special confidence, the possibility that everyone but the author and the reader has forgotten about this little sanctuary, where clearly the author has absconded himself, so he could have privacy to scribble something in his notebook, uninterrupted in his reverie.

Ben Tripp‘s writing appears in Hyperallergic, BOMB, Brooklyn Rail, Guernica and CCM Entropy. He also blogs at https://benjamintripp.wordpress.com/.