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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
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Timothy Taylor

Corpse Washing
by Rainer Maria Rilke

They had grown used to him. But when the
Tilley lamp was brought and threw
fitful beams into the darkening room, the stranger
grew unknowable. They washed his neck

and, as they knew nothing of his circumstances,
they wove a history for him from lies,
diligently washing. A cough forced one to pause,
to rest her loaded vinegar sponge

on the face. The second one took the opportunity too,
to pause. The heavy drops fell
from the hard brush, and his horribly contorted hand
tried to signal to the whole house
that he no longer thirsted.

It understood. Abashed, clearing their throats,
they resumed their work, their bent shadows caught
by the net cast by the patterned wallpaper,
twisting until the end.

The night stood blank in the curtainless window.
The nameless one lay there, naked, clean,
and demanding.

Translated from the German by Timothy Taylor


Sie hatten sich an ihn gewöhnt. Doch als
die Küchenlampe kam und unruhig brannte
im dunkeln Luftzug, war der Unbekannte
ganz unbekannt. Sie wuschen seinen Hals,

und da sie nichts von seinem Schicksal wussten,
so logen sie ein anderes zusamm,
fortwährend waschend. Eine musste husten
und ließ solang den schweren Essigschwamm

auf dem Gesicht. Da gab es eine Pause
auch für die zweite. Aus der harten Bürste
klopften die Tropfen; während seine grause
gekrampfte Hand dem ganzen Hause
beweisen wollte, dass ihn nicht mehr dürste.

Und er bewies. Sie nahmen wie betreten
eiliger jetzt mit einem kurzen Huster
die Arbeit auf, so dass an den Tapeten
ihr krummer Schatten in dem stummen Muster

sich wand und wälzte wie in einem Netze,
bis dass die Waschenden zu Ende kamen.
Die Nacht im vorhanglosen Fensterrahmen
war rücksichtslos. Und einer ohne Namen
lag bar und reinlich da und gab Gesetze.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Translation commentary

Having scraped by in school German, student work in Austrian archaeology forced me to improve. Although Rilke was daunting, this poem appealed to me because of my interest in funerary rites. Dissatisfied with an available translation, I started my own. It began badly and got worse with each revision until I gave up. It felt like playing chess against someone whose knights move like bishops. Returning to the fray after a longish interval in which I have read more Rilke, as well as Hölderlin, Kafka, Musil, and so on, everything felt more immediate. I drafted fast and did not analyse my decisions closely (I didn’t consult my earlier attempt as I couldn’t find it).

In contrast with many of Rilke’s later poems ‘Corpse Washing’ is clinical, anomic and anti-elegiac. There is a sense of people as objects, and objects having intentions. Trying to capture this feeling while discovering end rhymes was beyond me, so I aimed for unforced echoes to provide rhythm and cadence: ‘unknowable’ and ‘knew nothing’ for the doubling Unbekannte . . . unbekannt; ‘one to pause . . . second one . . . too, to pause’ to indicate the deliberate slow rhythm given by Klopften die Tropfen; ‘caught by . . cast by’ compensating for wand und wälzte. Beyond that, I sacrificed the implied kitchen setting by introducing an idiomatic Tilley lamp, had the house passively understand the corpse’s hand gesture, lost the muteness of the wallpaper, simplified a während to an ‘and’, personified the rücksichtlos night by having it stand blankly, and so on. The final stanzas are compressed as much by English grammar as anything, but I went with that, hoping terseness would help capture something of the poem’s bleak, latent horror.

Timothy Taylor