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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

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Sam Riviere


Everyone experiments with leaving.
Night makes the eyes bald, the dark
above the bed buzzes, seems to bulge
with images: the future’s hunting ground.
Or else, a beam from a taxi carrying
the last drunks home slowly scans
the room, stalling on a bare part of wall
and the hurt is like not being looked at.

The night birds leaving and arriving:
for more than a year a sound you hadn’t noticed
has underscored those elsewheres
you selected for yourself: ideas, identity,
hazy in another setting, pleasing,
with the luxury of blur. You hear it now:
disturbed flurry, like flicking through pages,
the resuming of a hard, awful focus…

Don’t finish the thought. It’s there again,
the intermittence under everything.
The bird, a part of dark, has left or landed.
Kirr, kirr. The curtains are rigid, luminous
when the night restarts, and the beam sweeps
the ceiling, taking the mirage. Unsure
before you look, but each one brings
fresh pain, relief: like light returning to a negative.

There it is – the student of photography
stretches out transparent strips
and leans closer to inspect the figures
trapped in tableaux like hotel rooms.
Her gaze passes clear through each,
escaping the cramped dimensions of her present
in the study of these remnants, back turned:
it’s at such moments the future catches us.

Translated from the Russian by Sam Riviere

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).


Я изучил науку расставанья
В простоволосых жалобах ночных.
Жуют волы, и длится ожиданье —
Последний час вигилий городских,
И чту обряд той петушиной ночи,
Когда, подняв дорожной скорби груз,
Глядели вдаль заплаканные очи
И женский плач мешался с пеньем муз.

Кто может знать при слове "расставанье"
Какая нам разлука предстоит,
Что нам сулит петушье восклицанье,
Когда огонь в акрополе горит,
И на заре какой-то новой жизни,
Когда в сенях лениво вол жует,
Зачем петух, глашатай новой жизни,
На городской стене крылами бьет?

И я люблю обыкновенье пряжи:
Снует челнок, веретено жужжит.
Смотри, навстречу, словно пух лебяжий,
Уже босая Делия летит!
О, нашей жизни скудная основа,
Куда как беден радости язык!
Все было встарь, все повторится снова,
И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг.

Да будет так: прозрачная фигурка
На чистом блюде глиняном лежит,
Как беличья распластанная шкурка,
Склонясь над воском, девушка глядит.
Не нам гадать о греческом Эребе,
Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь.
Нам только в битвах выпадает жребий,
А им дано гадая умереть.

Osip Mandelstam

Translation commentary

I was challenged to make versions of some poems I liked a lot but had only read in translation. I had known this poem for a few years, and it was the third or fourth piece I attempted. As I do not read or speak Russian, I relied on reading as many translations of the poem as possible to gain a strong sense of its form and argument. I very slowly began to think of equivalent images from my language and experience, and began to structure these according to the sound of the translations I'd read, and my understanding of the poem's reasoning. Strangely, after the first stanza or so, images and ideas began to present themselves more readily, and seemed to adhere to the feeling of the poem, or my feeling of it. The use of the image of a photography student finally seemed to match the figurine of the original in a pretty direct way, and concluded the poem decisively enough for my purposes. I found having a regular stanza and line-length useful in containing, embellishing and re-enacting the ideas in this poem.

Sam Riviere