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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, second prize

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org
Read the winning entries from previous years


Martin Bennett

Toto Merumeni (after Guido Gozzano)


I
Seventeenth century balconies decked
with greenery; the unkempt garden; spacious rooms:
A villa so bookish I could be its architect,
the perfect scenery for one of my poems…
It has seen better days, summer balls
beneath venerable oaktree and beech,
the great and the good gracing the halls
since stripped bare by dealers in antiques.
Times gone by, Lord or Ladyship arrived
comme il faut, name and crest to draw on;
now a motor-car snorts and judders outside,
its owner in new-fangled leather raps the gorgon.
A dog-bark, retreat of some steps upon the stair
as the door glides shut. Part-barracks part-cloister,
here’s the home Toto Merumeni shares with Mother,
his white-haired aunt, an uncle who’s not all there.

II
Twenty-five, inkaholic with an expert sneer,
enough culture for several lifetimes yet short on
morals or common sense, intuition
to take away your breath, he’s Homunculus of the Year.
Not rich, instead of making money from letters
and pursuing a career as agent or hack,
he chooses exile. Here he’s free to play back
transgressions about which the less said the better.
Bad? But how – given he donates monthly to charity,
forwards complimentary copies of his collections
to friends, ghost-writes for a pittance sections
of so-and-such’s thesis, acts as such-and-so’s referee?
Cold, all too aware of himself and his own wrongs,
no, he’s not bad. Good even, at least as mocked by Nietzsche.
‘...in truth I deride the inept of whom one speaks
well, only because his claws are insufficiently strong...’
Immersed in studies, he descends all the same
whenever his fans on the lawn call him out to play.
And who are they? A hoarse-voiced jay,
a pussy-cat, this Barbary ape he’s renamed Fame.

III
One by one takes back its promises –
Love with a big ‘L’ doesn’t get a second look –
Once he yearned after princesses and divas;
now his oats come courtesy of the teenage cook.
The rest of the house asleep, barefoot she creeps
upstairs, fresh as a plum in morning frost,
reaches his room, between kisses, leaps
and shimmies on top of him, supine, blessed.

IV
His feeling bypass, a slow untamed pain
has dried up the spring of sentiment;
self-analysis and sophistry do the same
to him as wind round a burning tenement:
And like the ruin that’s seen its share of flame
will by and by sprout exquisitely purple flowers,
so this parched soul ventures now and again
a nosegay of slender consoling verse.

V
Almost happy, after sundry interludes,
our Self-Tormentor alternates amateur
psychology with rhyme, probes vicissitudes
of the spirit which he hadn’t probed before.
Because his voice is small, Lit (Eng or It)
immense, since life, even as I speak, flits by,
he cuts himself off to work, well, a bit –
tends his smile. Born one day, one day he’ll die.

Translated from the Italian by Martin Bennett
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Totò Merumeni


I
Col suo giardino incolto, le sale vaste, i bei
balconi secentisti guarniti di verzura,
la villa sembra tolta da certi versi miei,
sembra la villa-tipo, del Libro di Lettura...
Pensa migliori giorni la villa triste, pensa
gaie brigate sotto gli alberi centenari,
banchetti illustri nella sala da pranzo immensa
e danze nel salone spoglio da gli antiquari.
Ma dove in altri tempi giungeva Casa Ansaldo,
Casa Rattazzi, Casa d’Azeglio, Casa Oddone,
s’arresta un’automobile fremendo e sobbalzando,
villosi forestieri picchiano la gorgòne.
S’ode un latrato e un passo, si schiude cautamente
la porta... In quel silenzio di chiostro e di caserma
vive Totò Merùmeni con una madre inferma,
una prozia canuta ed uno zio demente.

II
Totò ha venticinque anni, tempra sdegnosa,
molta cultura e gusto in opere d’inchiostro,
scarso cervello, scarsa morale, spaventosa
chiaroveggenza: è il vero figlio del tempo nostro.
Non ricco, giunta l’ora di “vender parolette”
(il suo Petrarca!...) e farsi baratto o gazzettiere,
Totò scelse l’esilio. E in libertà riflette
ai suoi trascorsi che sarà bello tacere.
Non è cattivo. Manda soccorso di danaro
al povero, all’amico un cesto di primizie;
non è cattivo. A lui ricorre lo scolaro
pel tema, l’emigrante per le commendatizie.
Gelido, consapevole di sé e dei suoi torti,
non è cattivo. È il buono che derideva il Nietzsche
“...in verità derido l’inetto che si dice
buono, perché non ha l’ugne abbastanza forti...”
Dopo lo studio grave, scende in giardino, gioca
coi suoi dolci compagni sull’erba che l’invita;
i suoi compagni sono: una ghiandaia rôca,
un micio, una bertuccia che ha nome Makakita...

III
La Vita si ritolse tutte le sue promesse.
Egli sognò per anni l’Amore che non venne,
sognò pel suo martirio attrici e principesse
ed oggi ha per amante la cuoca diciottenne.
Quando la casa dorme, la giovinetta scalza,
fresca come una prugna al gelo mattutino,
giunge nella sua stanza, lo bacia in bocca, balza
su lui che la possiede, beato e resupino...

IV
Totò non può sentire. Un lento male indomo
inaridì le fonti prime del sentimento;
l’analisi e il sofisma fecero di quest’uomo
ciò che le fiamme fanno d’un edificio al vento.
Ma come le ruine che già seppero il fuoco
esprimono i giaggioli dai bei vividi fiori,
quell’anima riarsa esprime a poco a poco
una fiorita d’esili versi consolatori...

V
Così Totò Merùmeni, dopo tristi vicende,
quasi è felice. Alterna l’indagine e la rima.
Chiuso in se stesso, medita, s’accresce, esplora, intende
la vita dello Spirito che non intese prima.
Perché la voce è poca, e l’arte prediletta
immensa, perché il Tempo - mentre ch’io parlo! - va,
Totò opra in disparte, sorride, e meglio aspetta.
E vive. Un giorno è nato. Un giorno morirà.

Guido Gozzano
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Translation commentary


It may come as a surprise – it certainly did to me – but J. Alfred Prufrock was alive and, well, not so well, in Northern Italy years before T. S. Eliot’s more famous version; alive and going under the unlikely name of Totò Merumeni, meaning in Greek ‘self-punisher’, the name having being used previously in a poem by Baudelaire and way before that by the Roman playwright Terence. The character in this case is an alter-ego for the real-life poet Guido Gozzano. Labelled as one of the ‘Crepusculari’, he has also been hailed by Montale as the forerunner of modern Italian poetry, his variety of register and sense of irony a notable departure from the highfalutin’ poetics of D’Annunzio and his followers who had come before. Irony and self-deprecation are rather easier to capture in English than the perfect Italian rhymes. This version tries as far as possible to maintain the meticulous rhyme scheme, although it sidesteps some parts of the original when the cultural context demands, as for example in the list of Italian aristocratic names, ‘Casa Ansaldo’, etc... Apologies for when the rhymes occasionally misfire. To rephrase Auden, ‘A translation is never finished, only abandoned’.

Martin Bennett
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