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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
18-and-under, joint first prize

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Ephraim Levinson

Abishag


I
She lay. Her arms – like children's arms – were swathed
around the king, a shrivelled, fading husk
on whom she spent sweet time from dawn to dusk,
though of his countless years she was afraid.

And sometimes, she sought comfort in his beard,
when startled by the owl's ragged scream,
and all the while around them night appeared,
with fear and yearning coupled at the scene.

The constellations trembled, just as she did.
A scent had wound itself about the room.
As if it were a sign, the curtain shifted.
She watched its motions in the growing gloom.

She closely clung around the waning ruler,
and still untaken by his nearing night
she lay upon the man as he turned cooler,
as weightless as a feather through its flight.

II
The king's thoughts filled the vacuum of the day
with long-past deeds, and never-sated lusts,
remembering the dog that he did raise,
but warm above him Abishag now lay.
As evening whisked the early light away,
so too his life he saw – a fading coast
below the starscape of her silent breast.

And sometimes, well aware of women's ways,
from here beneath his eyebrows he had gazed
upon her unaffected, kissless lips,
and knew for him her longing would not bud,
and knew the frost within him would not thaw.
He felt so cold. And like a hound he sought
his self; he tracked his trail of failing blood.

Translated from the German by Ephraim Levinson
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Abisag


I
Sie lag. Und ihre Kinderarme waren
von Dienern um den Welkenden gebunden,
auf dem sie lag die süßen langen Stunden,
ein wenig bang vor seinen vielen Jahren.

Und manchmal wandte sie in seinem Barte
ihr Angesicht, wenn eine Eule schrie;
und alles, was die Nacht war, kam und scharte
mit Bangen und Verlangen sich um sie.

Die Sterne zitterten wie ihresgleichen,
ein Duft ging suchend durch das Schlafgemach,
der Vorhang rührte sich und gab ein Zeichen,
und leise ging ihr Blick dem Zeichen nach –.

Aber sie hielt sich an dem dunkeln Alten
und, von der Nacht der Nachte nicht erreicht,
lag sie auf seinem fürstlichen Erkalten
jungfräulich und wie eine Seele leicht.

II
Der König saß und sann den leeren Tag
getaner Taten, ungefühlter Lüste
und seiner Lieblingshündin, der er pflag –.
Aber am Abend wölbte Abisag
sich über ihm. Sein wirres Leben lag
verlassen wie verrufne Meeresküste
unter dem Sternbild ihrer stillen Brüste.

Und manchmal, als ein Kundiger der Frauen,
erkannte er durch seine Augenbrauen
den unbewegten, küsselosen Mund;
und sah ihres Gefühles grüne Rute
neigte sich nicht herab zu seinem Grund.
Ihn fröstelte. Er horchte wie ein Hund
und suchte sich in seinem letzten Blute.

Rainer Maria Rilke
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Translation commentary


I chose this poem because its story had been the Haftarah portion at my Bar-Mitzvah. I was struck by how odd the tale was, of King David and the beautiful woman with whom he did not have sexual relations (1 Kings 1:3-4, Bill Clinton eat your heart out).

The main challenge of translating from German was the use of compound words, for example Kinderarme, which in the context of the line became like children's arms, and küsselosen, which I transliterated as kissless to retain the sibilance, and because Rilke highlights in that word the sexual isolation of the king so perfectly it would be foolish to change it.

Besides the language in which it was written, the poem itself presented certain challenges, particularly Rilke's sound-patterning. Take line 14, the consonance of der Nacht der Nacht nicht erreicht and the way the weak i-sound of nicht is strengthened in the harsher erreicht. The latter aspect I attempted to reflect through the similar change to the i-sound in nearing night, while for Rilke's consonance I substituted alliteration (which also features in the line).

While part I gives Abishag's perspective and part II David's, Rilke uses repetition to suggest similarities regardless of the differences demonstrated by, for example, the change of form and metre (I have enjoyed the challenge of retaining this). Hence Und manchmal (And sometimes) begins verses in both parts. I have stayed true to this, but at other points I have compromised; the Sterne of line 9 and the Sternbild of line 23 became constellations and starscape respectively, so to maintain the spirit of the original I followed the astronomical resonances in 'Abis(h)ag', by using words like waning. Similarly, while I did not precisely follow Rilke's metaphor in lines 27–28, I adapted the natural imagery to prioritise form.

Ephraim Levinson