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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, 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

Karen Leeder

Childhood in the Diorama

Strange, as a child he was always drawn to the inert.
In museums he'd stand for ages at the diorama,
its animals ranged in natural groups, stock-still
against the painted backdrops, forests, Himalayas.
Like in a fairy-tale, enchanted, the deer pricked up
its ears as he edged closer in the neon, eyes shining.
In the skull of the caveman right next door he saw
only the gaping hole, couldn't imagine the blow
of his rival's club, the struggle for the fire.
The Egyptian mummy had lasted thousands of years
with its brain spooled out. Only with the melting
of the perma-ice had this mammoth come to light.
The most beautiful butterflies, big as your hand,
he found skewered with pins. Once, he thought
he saw their wings still quivering – as if in memory
of the trees that had been felled, the tropical winds.
A draught, perhaps, had blown through the displays.

Translated from the German by Karen Leeder

Kindheit im Diorama

Seltsam, als Kind schon zog ihn Erstarrtes an.
In den Museen stand er lange vorm Diorama
Mit den Tieren im Stillstand, natürlich gruppiert
Vor gemalte Fernen, Urwaldszenen und Himalayas.
Wie im Märchen, verzaubert, horchten die Rehe auf,
Trat man im Neonlicht näher mit funkelnden Augen.
Am Schädel des Höhlenmenschen gleich nebenan
Sah er das Loch und vergaß den Keulenhieb
Des Rivalen, den Kampf um die Feuerstelle.
Die ägyptische Mumie hielt Jahrtausenden stand
Mit entferntem Gehirn. Erst beim Schmelzen
Des Ewigen Eises kam dieses Mammut ans Licht.
Die schönsten Schmetterlinge, handtellergroß,
Fand er auf Nadeln gespießt. Einmal schien ihm,
Als ob ihre Flügel noch bebten, wie in Erinnerung
An die gefällten Bäume, den tropischen Wind.
Vielleicht, daß ein Luftzug durch Schaukästen ging.

Durs Grünbein

Reproduced by kind permission of the poet and Suhrkamp Verlag

Translation commentary

Durs Grünbein is one of the most exciting and prolific poets writing in German today. He has published more than twenty books of poetry and won many of the major prizes at home and abroad including the prestigious Büchner prize in 1995. Michael Hofmann's Ashes for Breakfast brought Grünbein into English for the first time in 2005 and transmits a powerful sense of a certain neurotic urban energy. But Grünbein has written a good deal since then and his tone has changed. Largely gone is his 'aesthetic of sarcasm', loose-limbed poems literally stripping things to the bone with his anatomically-inflected cynicism. His recent work has seen a shift to the classical world, new formal constraints, and also a more personal, a more human voice. This has not made the poems any easier to translate; if anything the opposite. One of the challenges is to catch the way different tones, the caustic and the lyrical, rub shoulders, without giving in to the temptation to smooth things out. And Grünbein fetches in all kinds of unlikely images and vocabulary like so many depth charges in the line. Set against this is a strong metrical sense and a soundscape that draws the disparate elements together.

'Childhood in the Diorama' is one of his more personal poems, perhaps an allegory of his time in the former East Germany, but also much more than that. For that reason I abandoned the upper-case at the beginnings of the lines. It is so much less common in contemporary English poetry and gave an unwarranted stiffness. The first line was tricky: balancing the surprise of that 'Seltsam' at the beginning against the chance of a more rhythmic English line. And each successive draft showed me how not a word of the German was superfluous.

Karen Leeder