The Arithmetic of Being in the World: King of a Hundred Horsemen by Marie Étienne

King of a Hundred Horsemen

King of a Hundred Horsemen
BY Marie Étienne
Marilyn Hacker
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

Marie Étienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen is a mysterious poetic-prose sequence that both solicits and bears re-reading. Consisting of nine numbered section titles, one numbered endnote page (that resembles in itself a prose poem), and ninety numbered “prose sonnets” (whose “lines” may be sentences, words, or snippets of dialogue), the book first looks like an ordered arrangement of memories and narratives. The arithmetic structure brings to mind a parade, a procession, or — ironically — a military formation, and the pre-established constraints also seemingly derive from Étienne’s “lively if distanced or bemused interest in the Oulipo movement,” as Marilyn Hacker, the accurate, prizewinning translator, articulates in her informative preface. Yet Étienne, adds Hacker, is actually “interested more in a philosophical reflection on the direction taken by written texts as they develop than in a ‘submission,’ however playful or arbitrary, to form or formula. For her the writer is the ‘coachman driving the team of horses pulling the carriage,’ exercising a control kept by awareness of a constant and fruitful tension between the conscious and the unconscious, as well as between content and form” (p. xi).

This critical vantage point is helpful, especially with respect to Étienne’s use of memory. Born in France in 1938 yet raised in Indochina, she first depicts herself on a boat moving through the Suez Canal on its way back to France. Her memory is “paralyzed” as regards her native country. “Twenty years passed outside France,” she remarks, before asking: “what have I left of it?” (“Ocean/Emotion,” p. 5). She is gently begging the question.

… Étienne engages not only with her own past and present, but also with individuals who lived before her own lifetime or who inhabit an imaginary, fictional, space.

Étienne quotes the words that her father spoke on the bridge of the boat, yet just as soon the text deepens in temporal complexity. The narrator is no longer in this Egyptian past-as-present with her father urging her to observe the canal, but in her French present, four or five decades later. (Roi des cent cavaliers was published in 2002.) The poet now admits to having forgotten the canal and remembers only “the sensation of [her] height above the sea, the uneasiness” (“Ocean/Emotion,” p. 5). By the middle of this first text, she thus extends her purview from the troubling phenomena of recollection per se to those of emotion, sense impression, and thought. She insists not entirely on mental images (with their vertical symbolism of a potential “fall”), but also on equally fundamental cognitive events: the sensation of dizziness and the feeling of disquiet. Full of suggestive imagery, but also of lingering sensations, disturbing emotions and fragmentary stories, King of a Hundred Horsemen essentially forms the self-portrait of a sensibility.

Tellingly, however, Étienne engages not only with her own past and present, but also with individuals who lived before her own lifetime or who inhabit an imaginary, fictional, space. Her themes expand from a personal search to broader topics such as war, ecology, art, writing, human relationships, gender, and cultural identity. Befitting her own long stays in Vietnam, Ivory Coast, Germany, and Senegal, the settings are international, ranging from Montmartre to

The Danube, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and the Nile. Now Ethiopia.
And the Kalahari Desert, near the South Pole.
Or Nova Scotia, the Gulf Stream. Guinea, Brazil. Now Chile.
And Patagonia.
Or Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, New Guinea. And Australia

— “Little Dance,” p. 171

In other words, the lacunary tales, drama-like excerpts, and brief confessions or cogitations woven into this open-ended book are not always intimate ones. If the evocations are nonetheless ultimately charged with personal connotations, their remove from the author is likewise emphasized. For example, although the initial focus of King of a Hundred Horsemen is autobiographical, the fourth prose sonnet takes off from a letter written by Marina Tsvetaeva to Boris Pasternak. “…the lacunary tales, drama-like excerpts, and brief confessions or cogitations woven into this open-ended book are not always intimate ones.
If the evocations are nonetheless ultimately charged with personal connotations, their remove from the author is likewise emphasized.”
Tsvetaeva is staying at the sea (in Saint-Gilles-sur-Vie, near La Rochelle), and this site (and symbol) forms the transition with the Suez Canal and the Black Sea that is also mentioned in the first text. Similar shifts increase the intricacy of the overall narrative structure: links to what has preceded or will follow are always established. Different perspectives are opened up, not just on Time as experienced by immediate or projected consciousness (Tsvetaeva lived in Saint-Gilles-sur-Vie in 1926, twelve years before Étienne’s birth), but also on the multifarious voices that inhabit, indeed compose her. Phrases are spoken here by T.S. Eliot, Paul Claudel, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Musil, Rosamond Lehmann, Torquato Tasso, Italo Svevo, and others, including the Moallaka of Hareth. Two characters with oriental-sounding names, Lam and Ang, also arrive on stage. Other prose sonnets describe graphic art by two contemporary French artists, Gaston Planet and François Dilasser. In Sonnet 66, the poet sums up the ars poetica that accommodates all this disparate subject matter:

Development is superfluous.
To write only notes, comings and goings of the eye, of memory.
To encounter chance.
Not to seek perfection in detail, in the perfect pencil-stroke, the re-creation, nor salvation in details, the luxury of the real.
To have patience, to let the image float.

— “Watchman, Reflecting,” p. 135

Drawing on such varied sources can lead to a pseudo-savant hodgepodge. Postmodernism has accustomed us to related poses and provocations. This is untrue of King of a Hundred Horsemen. From the onset, the book intrigues in that its underlying coherence is not apparent yet is constantly tendered as a mystery to be solved. The heterogeneity seems to point towards something singular and secret (or lost) that must be discovered or recovered. Étienne drops hints, which point to the possibility of a unifying creative self, like the aforementioned “coachman” and his “team of horses.” “There is only one voice,” declares the writer in Sonnet 50, “although it is multiple” (“The Assassin’s Denial,” p. 103). But can the author, or any of us, locate this unifying self, dwell there, be ourselves? In the last sonnet, another key figure, a child, again represents this fundamental many-in-one configuration. He takes words, birds, and winds and then divides “them into a hundred sections,” just as Étienne’s book has a hundred parts. The child puts in “every part of [his] life”; he is the “king of a hundred horsemen” (“Some of Them Are Japanese,” p. 201). Some readers will extrapolate the existential, metaphysical or cosmic potential of this organizing principle.

Remotely recalling Victor Segalen’s Steles (1912), whose poetic prose form is somewhat similar, Marie Étienne’s prose sonnets provide fine examples of her own resourcefulness. She has forged different kinds of poetic prose elsewhere, and has defended the pertinence of prose poetry and other mixed or in-between genres in her essays. Yet much more than stylistic inventiveness is at stake in King of a Hundred Horsemen. She brings her numbered sequential framework and her fixed, if flexible, prose sonnet form to bear on the desires (or despair) and aspirations (or frustrations) underlying a personal quest, which increasingly emerges as a unifying factor in the book. Yet the collection remains not wholly egocentric, as such quests often were for Romantic writers. The irrational or, at least, partly unconscious flow of perceptions, sensations, feelings, memories, fantasies, and utterances are captured and contained, as it were, in these rational structures. This dichotomy is one of the essential paradigms of our being in the world; it is in fact our “well-being.” “You’ve lost even the idea of reassurance,” Étienne tells herself in Sonnet 83. (The French word is apaisement, also suggesting appeasement and inner peace.) As she continues:

You think it’s somewhere beyond you.
That you must go in search of it.
In the Orient, on the sea.
In someone else’s hands.
You set off once more. Nothing on the riverbank.
You don’t leave again. The wind moves, invades the terraces.
You set yourself out to dry, you come back to life, always ready.

— “Little Dance,” p. 169

Readiness? As often elsewhere in this obliquely fascinating book, readiness implies openness to everything entailed in being alive.

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