Poetry: A Guilty Conscience for her Time
Marie Etienne, Marilyn Hacker, trans., King of a Hundred Horsemen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
In his 1960 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saint-John Perse said that “it is enough for the poet to be the guilty conscience of his time.” Perse was a poet who ventured inward and he often described his journeys in terms of landscapes and broad histories, of the interior made exterior. By transforming the self into terrain, Perse acted as a “guilty conscience,” creating narratives out of the dreams and nightmares he encountered within.
Marie Étienne, a well-known poet in her home country of France, follows in Perse’s footsteps both formally and in the role of “guilty conscience.” In her book King of Hundred Horsemen, first published in France in 2002 and now beautifully translated by Marilyn Hacker, Étienne expresses a vast range of experiences and personae, weaving multiple narratives into a whole. Unlike Perse, she is less interested in seeking and mapping herself than in locating idiosyncrasies among the multiplicity of contemporary life. With this approach, Étienne pricks the conscience of her time.
Étienne spent the early years of her life in Southeast Asia, in an area that is now part of Vietnam, during the Second World War and the beginning of the region’s struggle for independence. Her memories of the violence and privation of that time and place are vividly represented in King of a Hundred Horsemen by two characters’ experiences, Ang and Lam. These episodes are the most grounded of several narrative lines that run through the work. The others, including glimpses into the journal of a Parisian writer (possibly Étienne herself) and a brief description of a painter, fade in and out of focus, bleeding into one another. Ang and Lam are the only consistent characters in the poem’s shifting narrative landscape. Other characters, some barely hinted at, come across as extraneous to the project as a whole. Etienne manages to keep the poem coherent however, mainly through her adherence to a formal contrivance of her own invention.
King of a Hundred Horsemen is composed of nine sections, each section containing ten fourteen-sentence poems. Along with an appendix, the book contains a total of one hundred discrete poems. These numbered “sonnets” provide the poem with a skeletal structure; without this formal contrivance, the book would fail under the weight of its disparate subjects and multitude of voices. The sonnets themselves are written in a half prose, half verse, just as the book as a whole seems half fiction, half long poem. This modulation is handled well, emphasizing the interpenetration of fiction and life, of interior and exterior. Dream, memory, and imagination are integrated and interpreted through the act of writing, of imposing order.
Early on in the book Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva makes an appearance, writing a letter to Boris Pasternak from the seaside. Étienne blurs this scene with one from T.S. Eliot’s “Marina,” drawing on thepoem’s setting and language. Both Marinas lived in exile, and both are associated—in the section of the book titled “Ocean”—with the inconstancy of the sea. Étienne’s insistence on the fluid nature of identity is countered by her insistence on the abiding presence and importance of the past in the form of memory. As Eliot’s Pericles says in “Marina” and Etienne echoes, “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/...What images return...”
In King of a Hundred Horsemen, the images of the past, imagined and real, return to haunt the present, shaping identity like the nudge of a guilty conscience.