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The Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, commended

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


Olivia McCannon

February Bike Ride


1

As if I did ultimately need to keep a little faith
with that eternity the winds stash in their linings,

unthinking as a steady horse I took
the longing to leave between my teeth

and got on my old bike, dweller of cellars
and backshops since grandfather in his heyday

(but that's another story), deft cobbler that he was,
used the saddle to give shoes back their shape.

Once you're freewheeling downhill, you forget
that History is the kind of time that stops

to count its dead, while you, alone,
square yourself on the machine the better

to slip through the tightly meshed net
of the present: that promised poem

ground to a halt at the first line, the door
of the chicken-run gaping wide and the list

of things to buy for tonight, whose particulars
disappear the more ground you cover. Quick, pedal

hard, let forgetfulness swallow me whole,
wipe out for good all guilt at having fled

a smoked-out room walled in by books,
let nothing be left in the end but the wind

signing my papers with a swirl.


2

And who cares about the steep hill, the squeaky bike,
the creaking joints: I've managed to leave and nothing,
not even the rain cracking down on the earth

these past ten days for having believed
in spring two months too soon, nothing
will deter the runaway overtaken by his own speed

like a kitten landing on its feet
(already poised to leap again into empty space)
– overtaken, as I was saying, and also chiding himself

for the hours spent sitting staring
at the page in vain, even as the sun
pulled faces and drummed at the window

– but we are deaf to signs of elation
so long as we stew in the bitter illusion
that everything lies between the lines

on the page: the true truth and the living life.
Chiding himself, yes, chiding himself for his chiding
and then the whole excitable racing machine

suddenly jams (what starts in your head,
the man said, ends up in your sprocket).
To pedal, not to think,

That's the lesson, for sure.


3

The February bike ride is a gauntlet, a gift
for the man with itchy pedals, the deep-sea
doubter whose inkwell takes in
more water than fish. I confess,

seeing as it's time for a breather,
to my penchant for this sort of downhill sprint
into the thick of some calamity, and if it weren't
for this against-the-odds February spurt, most likely

I'd've been pulled up short by the point of no return,
but anyway, the chain's fixed
and I'm back on the road, spared, for now,
a clumsy speech and my doubts

and my flailing hook. The sun is riding
on my handlebars and with its glances peps me up
like a personal trainer, repeating that living is
here, now, who cares what's left undone:

tomorrow has no dominion, while already, on high
behind the hill, the King is naked and the rookery
of rogues returning to roost: meadows, woods, rivers
with a bedful of music,

there, waiting for us

Translated from the French by Olivia McCannon
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Février à vélo


1
Comme s'il fallait quand même croire un peu
à l'éternité qui se cache dans la doublure des vents,

j'ai serré, en bon cheval qui s'ignore,
mon désir de partir entre les dents

et pris mon vieux vélo, un habitué des caves
et arrière-boutiques puisque grand-père déjà

(mais c'est une autre histoire), en cordonnier habile,
utilisait la selle pour donner forme à des souliers.

Une fois lancé dans la descente, on oublie
que l'Histoire est du temps qui s'arrête

pour ramasser ses morts, et soi-même,
on se carre sur la machine pour passer

plus facilement entre les mailles
du présent qui résiste : ce poème promis,

stoppé au premier vers, la porte
du poulailler qui bâille et la liste

des courses pour le soir, dont le détail
se perd à mesure qu'on avance. Vite, un coup

de pédale et que l'oubli me prenne tout entier,
efface pour de bon le remords d'avoir fui

une chambre enfumée et clôturée de livres,
qu'il n'y ait plus à la fin pour signer mes papiers

qu'un paraphe de vent.


2
Et qu'importe la côte, et que le vélo grince
et que craquent les os : je suis parti et rien,
pas même la pluie qui gendarme le paysage

depuis dix jours pour avoir cru
au printemps avec deux mois d'avance, rien
ne découragera le fuyard surpris par son élan

comme un chaton retombant sur ses pattes
(pour un peu, il s'élancerait à nouveau dans le vide)
– surpris, dis-je, et qui s'en veut

d'être resté assis des heures en vain
à contempler sa feuille alors que le soleil
faisait le zouave à la fenêtre, tambourinant

– mais on est sourd aux signes d'allégresse
quand on baigne sans arrêt dans l'amère
illusion que tout est là entre les lignes

du papier : la vérité vraie et la vivante vie.
Qui s'en veut, oui, s'en veut de s'en vouloir
et voilà d'un seul coup la mécanique emballée

qui s'enraye (tout commence dans la tête,
disait l'autre, et finit dans le pédalier).
Pédaler, ne pas penser,

voilà bien la leçon.

3
Février à vélo est presque une gageure
pour le rongeur de frein, le douteur
de grand fond qui prend dans l'encrier
plus d'eau que de poisson. J'avoue,

puisque c'est l'heure de la pause,
mon penchant pour ce genre de descente
au coeur de l'infortune, et n'était
ce sursaut inouï de février, sans doute

aurais-je atteint le point de non-retour,
mais bon, la chaîne est réparée
et je reprends la route, remettant à plus tard
un discours importun et mes doutes

et mon piètre hameçon. Le soleil s'est assis
sur ma fourche et des yeux m'encourage
comme la mouche du coche, me répétant que vivre
c'est içi, maintenant, et qu'importent les tâches :

demain n'est pas tandis que là-haut, déjà,
derrière la colline, le roi est nu et la cour
des miracles rendue : près, bois, rivières
avec un plein lit de musique,

là, qui nous attend.

Guy Goffette

Reproduced by permission of Guy Goffette
From La vie promise © Editions Gallimard, 1991
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Translation commentary


This open-air poem called to me, as it would to any serial escape artist. I was carried away by it (or rather, emballé – a Goffette verb, see 2, line 18). Wanting to continue both the momentum and the conversation of the poem, I began to translate.

Goffette's poetry travels well into English, due partly to poetic affinities (Auden, Frost, Larkin), partly to its distinctive tone of voice. I felt that my way in would be to try, in English, to 'hear' this tone, with its disarming blend of self-deprecating humour, irony, and humanity.

His inventive use of irregular metre, incisive caesura, stanzas that change gear (couplets, tercets, quatrains) and a runaway last line, serve the play between serious and humorous, heavy and light. It's as if he uses the weight of his troubles to freewheel down one hill, the better to race up the next and find a lightness in his writing to counter them.

French is good at expressing impersonality. The directness of 'we' or 'you' in English always feels like a disappointing loss of range when rendering the French 'on', especially here, where (1, lines 9–18) it enacts a shift towards the therapeutic distancing from the ego the cyclist craves.

Challenges came from highly idiomatic, or culturally specific, language. In part three: le rongeur de frein ('brake rodent'), la mouche du coche ('stagecoach fly'), and la Cour des Miracles: in the Paris of Louis XIV, the nickname given to the slums, for the beggars miraculously cured of their ills when they went home at night. I went for 'rookery', as it assumed a dual function, a wink to the original that also caught the atmosphere of the closing stanza: it's dusk, you can't drag your heels any longer, it's time to head home…

Olivia McCannon