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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

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Patricia Roseberry

The Murderer’s Wine

My wife is dead, I’m off the hook,
I’m free at last to drink my fill.
When penniless I staggered home
Her nagging put me through the mill.

Today I’m happy as a king:
The air is fresh, the sky is blue
(It was a summer just like this,
The year I fell in love with you).

To quench the thirst that racks me now
I’d need to sink more wine than it
Would take to drown her grave
And then some – Christ, that’s quite a bit!

I threw her body down a well
Then all the paving stones that lay
About the brink. Can I forget?
I’ll try – perhaps I will, some day.

Reminding her of all our vows
That nothing ever can unbind,
The days when we were drunk with love,
The happiness we left behind,

I begged her meet me late one night,
Alone in a secluded lane.
She came! How could she be so rash?
But none of us is really sane.

She looked so weary standing there
Though she was pretty still. And I?
I said I loved her far too much
And that was why she had to die.

Those piss-heads never get my drift.
Not one in all that stupid crowd
Has ever in his stinking dreams
Imagined making wine a shroud.

That scum, they’re thick, they’re like machines
They’ll never know, year in year out
Come rain come shine come any time,
What true love’s really all about –

It’s bloody witchcraft, black as hell
Its evil train of shocks and pains,
Its poisoned philtres and its tears,
Its rattling bones and jangling chains!

Tonight I mean to get dead drunk
Now that I’m free and on my own!
No fear and no remorse for me,
When on the ground I lay me down.

I’ll sleep as sound as any dog!
That cart with heavy wheels can bring
Its load of stones and muck along,
Believe me, I’ll not feel a thing.

And if by chance that crazy cart
Should crush my guilty skull or split
My body clean in two, so what?
I really couldn’t give a shit!

Translated from the French by Patricia Roseberry

Le Vin de l’Assassin

Ma femme est morte, je suis libre!

Je puis donc boire tout mon soûl.

Lorsque je rentrais sans un sou,

Ses cris me déchiraient la fibre.

Autant qu’un roi je suis heureux;

L’air est pur, le ciel admirable...

Nous avions un été semblable

Lorsque j'en devins amoureux!

L'horrible soif qui me déchire

Aurait besoin pour s’assouvir

D'autant de vin qu'en peut tenir

Son tombeau; – ce n’est pas peu dire:

Je l’ai jetée au fond d'un puits,

Et j’ai même poussé sur elle

Tous les pavés de la margelle.

– Je l’oublierai si je le puis!

Au nom des serments de tendresse,

Dont rien ne peut nous délier,

Et pour nous réconcilier

Comme au beau temps de notre ivresse,

J'implorai d’elle un rendez-vous,

Le soir, sur une route obscure.

Elle y vint – folle créature!

Nous sommes tous plus ou moins fous!

Elle était encore jolie,

Quoique bien fatiguée! et moi,

Je l'aimais trop! voilà pourquoi

Je lui dis: Sors de cette vie!

Nul ne peut me comprendre. Un seul

Parmi ces ivrognes stupides

Songea-t-il dans ses nuits morbides

À faire du vin un linceul?

Cette crapule invulnérable

Comme les machines de fer

Jamais, ni l’été ni l'hiver,

N’a connu l’amour véritable,

Avec ses noirs enchantements,

Son cortège infernal d'alarmes,

Ses fioles de poison, ses larmes,

Ses bruits de chaîne et d'ossements!

– Me voilà libre et solitaire!

Je serai ce soir ivre mort;

Alors, sans peur et sans remords,

Je me coucherai sur la terre,

Et je dormirai comme un chien!

Le chariot aux lourdes roues

Chargé de pierres et de boues,

Le wagon enragé peut bien

Écraser ma tête coupable

Ou me couper par le milieu,

Je m’en moque comme de Dieu,

Du Diable ou de la Sainte Table!

Charles Baudelaire

Translation commentary

This low-life ballad belongs to the group of poems in Les Fleurs du Mal devoted to wine and its (mostly) abusers. The murderer’s switches of mood bounce along at eight to the bar, swinging from relief and bravado to horror, regret and remorse. There is both posturing and pathos.

The swaggering, direct language calls for some up-dating; the blasphemy in the last verse is rendered in the vernacular. Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme, 1/3, 2/4, becomes 2/4 only for the sake of fluency. The change of pronoun in verse two is deliberate – it intensifies the emotional impact by making the murderer address his wife directly.

Patricia Roseberry