« étoiles »

Poetry / Marci Vogel

:: « étoiles » ::

	 . . . trouver bien et mal, bel et lait, sens et folie, et fere son preu de tout par les 	
        examples de l’estoire.  

 	. . . find good and evil, the beautiful and ugly, sense and folly, and profit from all 
        through the example of history. 

						                                Les grandes chroniques de France

vogel-image-1 The queen con­sort enters Paris | August 1389

vogel-1-1 vogel-2


vogel-image-2 The king, seized by mad­ness in the for­est of Le Mans | August 1392



vogel-image-3 Bal des ardents | Jan­u­ary, 1393



vogel-image-4 The Duchess of Orléans leaves Paris | 1396




From the writer

:: Account ::

The unfa­mil­iar­i­ty of words allows a cer­tain free­dom, and some­times strange col­li­sions. In Old French, the word estoire means “his­to­ry,” but it’s also tied to the phys­i­cal object that con­veys the history—the chron­i­cle itself, the nar­ra­tive source. Estoire can also mean the sto­ry of a fac­tu­al occur­rence, which is both tied to time and extends beyond it.

How does our lan­guage about any one par­tic­u­lar event shift from con­veyance to leg­end, to a sto­ry we tell over and over again—like a star, out­liv­ing the moment of its birth?

These poems are part of a sequence called « étoiles ». They began as a means of trans­lat­ing a pub­lic his­to­ry and per­son­al sto­ry of late medieval poet, Chris­tine de Pizan.

The daugh­ter of an astrologer to Charles V, Chris­tine was wid­owed at age 25. At that moment the door to our mis­for­tunes was opened, and I, who was still very young, entered. Chris­tine began writ­ing to sup­port her­self and her fam­i­ly, engag­ing in a rig­or­ous course of self-study with the aid of books from the king’s vast library.

As with most life-alter­ing events, my intro­duc­tion to Chris­tine hap­pened by acci­dent. I was enrolled in a Chaucer course, but my atten­tion kept wan­der­ing. One day in the library stacks, I came across a book with brief men­tion of Chris­tine. Her sto­ry so com­pelled me, I began relearn­ing French after an absence of thir­ty years so that I might get clos­er to her poetry.

But poet­ry, made of lan­guage, is not sep­a­rate from the con­scious­ness of its mak­er, who exists in a par­tic­u­lar place and time in his­to­ry. And so my wan­der­ing con­tin­ued to unfa­mil­iar waters. As it hap­pens, anoth­er def­i­n­i­tion for estoire is “a fleet of ships,” or an arma­da. Chris­tine lived in a time of intense his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal upheaval, and she very inten­tion­al­ly wrote to effect the bet­ter­ment of a court beset by dev­as­tat­ing men­tal ill­ness and vicious infighting.

The illu­mi­na­tions depict­ed here, accessed through the dig­i­tized col­lec­tion of the British Library, are from the Chroniques of Jean Frois­sart, one of the most pop­u­lar ver­nac­u­lar his­to­ries of four­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land and France. Sec­u­lar man­u­scripts such as Froissart’s and the Grandes chroniques de France were typ­i­cal­ly much larg­er than devo­tion­al books, with lav­ish nar­ra­tive illus­tra­tions of fac­tu­al per­sons, bat­tles, and spec­ta­cles. Their audi­ences includ­ed nobles and roy­als. As Tracey Adams notes, Chris­tine would have relied upon them as an impor­tant source for her work.

Charged with bril­liant hues, grand pageantry, and dra­mat­ic urgency, these cen­turies-old illu­mi­na­tions relay imme­di­ate access to his­to­ries inhab­it­ed by Chris­tine, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty struck me that our eyes had gazed on the same pic­to­r­i­al sto­ries. Not only the ones in the chron­i­cles, but the ones in the sky.

I began to won­der what shape a poem might take if it were a con­stel­la­tion. How might it tell the sto­ry of a young queen? of a king, suf­fer­ing ter­ri­fy­ing inca­pac­i­ty? of trag­ic enter­tain­ments? of a for­eign-born noble­woman, unjust­ly wronged?

In close prox­im­i­ty to the word estoire, my library dic­tio­nary lists the Old French word for star: estoile. And if your eye wan­dered just a bit fur­ther, you’d find estoile: see estoire. Which might be trans­lat­ed to mean: His­to­ry is writ­ten in the stars.

Maybe poet­ry is what illu­mi­nates the sto­ries we read there.


Mar­ci Vogel is the author of At the Bor­der of Wilshire & Nobody, win­ner of the 2015 Howl­ing Bird Press Poet­ry Prize. Her writ­ing and trans­la­tions appear or are forth­com­ing in Plume, Waxwing Lit­er­ary Review, Brook­lyn Rail, Prairie Schooner, and Quar­ter After Eight. She recent­ly served as a guest com­men­ta­tor for the Jacket2 series, « A poet­ics of the étrangère » and as a writer-in-res­i­dence at Mar­nay Art Cen­tre in Mar­nay-sur-Seine, France.