It’s almost impossible to answer the question of what’s going on in the hundred poems offered in this collection, translated into English by National Book Award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker. Themes and characters exit as quickly as they’re introduced, poetry transforms into prose, and reality becomes theater. But once Étienne’s words are untangled, a thoughtful attempt to embrace all of human experience is revealed.
Despite the deliberate structure of 10 groups of 10 14-line sonnets, the collection’s overarching narrative remains confusing. Each of the 10 sections has its own quasi-plot: a woman named Ang suffers through a relationship, a woman falls in love with a painter, a man named Lam flees the scene of a murder and ends up at an airport in Georgia. The characters are little more than ciphers, though, and they often disappear when thematic commentary is to be delivered, only to reappear pages later as if they’d never been gone.
The warped style of the narrative can be frustrating. Even when Étienne’s narrative voice arrives to offer its personal thematic thoughts, it often transforms into a different voice by sonnet’s end. Themes are dealt with and quickly discarded, including culture clashes, the horrors of battle, eroticism, and the war between the sexes. In one particularly memorable bit dealing with the latter issue, Étienne powerfully joins (and then separates) the idea of the phallus with woman: “I was dreaming that sister had her member cut off by me. / In my dream I held the remaining part in one hand. / And in the other the amputated part. / Each part had a hard-on. I was amused.”
So what’s happening this whole time, as plots and themes ride in and out seemingly at random? Nothing, really, but in the end “what’s happening” doesn’t really matter. This is a poetry collection not concerned with specific events but with the events of all of humanity.
The 10th section best demonstrates this, looking at mankind through the metaphoric lens of birds to deliver simple but haunting imagery: “Some of them are sedentary and some are migrants. / Their short wings are bad for flying. / Some of them are Japanese.” Étienne’s unassuming words conceal much greater significance. It takes about half a section before the meaning of her simple thoughts are made clear, but once they are, a whole metaphorical world of meaning is discovered.
This world that Étienne creates is one centered around the idea of art. The most interesting sections of the collection voice Étienne’s own feelings on writing, undeniably fascinating statements that are worth reading by anyone at all interested in taking pen to paper. “One walks with words, one detaches them, spaces them, erases them. / One places them like a painter, as one would draw or embroider. / One makes little piles, with no punctuation, ‘almost begging to write.’” Étienne goes on to compare writing to trying to reign in and ride a horse, “so that the race won will be the text.”
Even her choice of form is reflective. Though Étienne writes in sonnet form, her sonnets initially look more like prose than poetry: “When you’re in Brittany, it’s the sea, rather, that arrives and departs, that denudes the earth, transforms it into a moonscape, which then comes back, which recovers it.” Later on, though, her poetry varies greatly: “Their wings lack hands. / Their mouths lack teeth. / Their pelvises lack a bladder.” Étienne reinterprets the “sonnet” as a structure based not around meter or rhyme but emotion. For her, the restrictions of the sonnet are restrictions meant to be overcome.
The interactions between theater and life also occupies a central place in this universe. Étienne spent 10 years working on the French experimental theater scene, and she seems to have taken from it an appreciation for the raw emotions of the stage along with the viewpoint that all of our lives are performances.
In one poem about a day on the road, she writes: “Costumes that one irons, hangs up on hangers. / Scenery one dismantles and hacks up with an axe. / Mirrors without reflections. / There are actors. Entrances, exits. / Curtain calls and cats.” In Étienne’s world, real life blends seamlessly with the stage; there’s no differentiation between art and life.
Despite losing certain nuances in translation (the French title of the first section, “La mer l’amour,” is a lot less clunky than “Ocean/Emotion”), Étienne’s complex world is still effectively communicated. (Thankfully, the French text is offered alongside the English.) And yet there’s something in Étienne’s text that transcends mere differences in language. Though the text can sometimes be confusing, what’s found there speaks to the great questions of human existence and reality.
“No one writes poetry any longer,” Étienne writes, “bric-a-brac in an old hardware store.” While poetry is a commodity in our world, it is an organic creation, fundamental, “almost begging to be written” in Étienne’s. The poems in “King of a Hundred Horsemen” may be difficult to untangle, but the world they reveal makes it well worth the effort.