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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, commended

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Antoinette Fawcett


So bring to mind all plant names
beginning with a b – brooklime
brush leek betony – list them all
to counteract the craving that still
visits you in bed – bittersweet burnet.
Alone you are, defenceless – boy's love –
memories of those who would, who did,
throng in, the same way that it went
even with no pretence of love – goat's beard
bog asphodel bramble – hope then
that sleep will ransom you, release
you from who you were – blue-eyes bog posy
bedstraw the straying bent grass –.

Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett


Bedenk nu alle plantennamen
beginnend met een b – beekpunge
bieslook bolderik – en verder zo
om de begeerte te ontgaan die je
bezoekt in bed – bitterzoet bevernel.
Alleen en weerloos ben je – bijvoet –
herinneringen aan wie wilden
verdringen zich, zoals dat is gegaan
ook zonder schijn van liefde – boksbaard
beenbreek braam – en hoop dan
dat de slaap je zal verlossen
van wie je was – bosliefje bingelkruid
bedstro verdwaald biestarwegras –.

Ed Leeflang

Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Ed Leeflang

Translation commentary

The Dutch title of Leeflang's poem 'Weermiddel' is a word with magical connotations, linked not only to defensive preparations against war, or incursions of sea on land, but also to charms against demonic possession. In this poem from Gaandeweg [gradually, going/gone] (2009), Leeflang's posthumous final volume, the possession is that of lust, memory, and fear. Language provides the defence, a charm to exorcise the possessing spirit and pacify the self. Through a litany of wild plants a world is evoked which is centred on the not-self. At the same time, each plant has certain folkloric and personal associations, so that in attempting to banish human needs and desires, Leeflang paradoxically calls these up, portraying a life-history in which the body and its feelings are paramount.

The challenge and delight of translating this poem lay in preserving the alliterative chain of plant-names, which in Dutch link back to the word 'begeerte' (desire, lust, craving), and in the translation tie in to 'bed'. I wanted English names which convey some of the folkloric associations of the Dutch, whilst also linking them into a personal history. In most cases I was able to find these by using both local and more widespread plant-names. In one case, 'goat's beard', the alliterative element comes on the second part of the name; in another, 'brush leek', I have taken a little liberty with a local word for chives.

How wonderful that Edward Thomas's 'Old Man' is also Leeflang's 'bijvoet' – a herb linked into the English chain through its other name of 'Boy's Love'. In medieval times it was used to ward off evil spirits and protect against nightmares. The Dutch name derives from these powers, but in the final analysis it is language itself, its creative possibilities within poetry, which gives this spell its potency.

Antoinette Fawcett