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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Open, second prize

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Patricia Hann

The Sunflower

Bring me the sunflower here and let me set it
in the parched briny soil of my own place
to turn all day to the heavens that reflect it
the broad gaze of its yellow yearning face.

Things of the dark aspire to all that's bright,
their forms dissolving into a cascade
of tints merging in music. Simply to fade
from view is the great adventure, lost in light.

Bring me the plant that points us to the height
where there's a clearness tinged with the sun's rays
and life itself is thinning to a haze.
Bring me that flower delirious with light.

Translated from the Italian by Patricia Hann

Il girasole

Portami il girasole ch'io lo'trapianti
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
del cielo l'ansietà del suo volto giallino.

Tendono alla chiarità le cose oscure,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
é dunque la ventura delle venture.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.

Eugenio Montale

Translation commentary

For an English poet the attempt to transplant Montale's 'Sunflower' can seem la ventura delle venture. The rhyme scheme, or something very like it, needs to be represented in translation or there will be a loss of cogency, while the choice of vocabulary is a delicate matter. The Italian language is happier than English with abstractions, and there are ambiguities in the original which are not easily resolved without imposing a straitjacket on the meaning or impairing the mystical element. In what sense is the sunflower classed by implication among le cose oscure? Is there a reflection here on Clytia's darkhearted betrayal of her rival or simply on the emergence of the sunflower (and plant life in general) out of the dark? Or does the term embrace both ideas within its wider applications? And does tendono imply an urge or simply something that happens?

Fluidity is a keynote of the poem, and the transformation of colours into musiche, presented almost as a logical progression, may need to be handled differently in a language where music has no plural. Both bionde and transparenze pose problems of interpretation. The equivalents in modern English have inconvenient connotations, but yellow, gold etc seem strong words to describe transparenze and it is hard to know just what Montale had in mind with that word, or how to interpret essenza. I decided to take my cue from vapora and recast the two lines, feeling that the passionate note at the end reinforced the sense of the poet's identification with the yearning sunflower, his mystical aspiration towards a sort of nirvana.

Patricia Hann