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The Stephen Spender Prize 2015 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, third 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

Martin Bennett

Acherontia Atropos

Acherontia frequents countrysides,
the gardens and villas of men:
in the gloomiest corridors, in lofts
left abandoned, underneath the eaves
where it sleeps, wings roofing its head.
Only come dusk does it venture out;
in September's chill and starlit evenings
when dusk already gives way to nightfall,
with the butterflies of sunlight all
vanished, Acherontia hovers mournful
and solitary among the shadows
of thuja-trees, the arbours or flowerbeds
where its daytime cousins lately played,
children gamboled. It is up and about;
a bat, zigzagging, gives it a wide berth.
Acherontia goes roaming. Deep and dense
is the silence, unbroken by screech-owl,
or the cricket's strident monotone.
The villa is like some sunken ship, its sole
identifying feature the windows
of the room where a family take dinner.
Acherontia nears, pauses, spies in,
numbering, one by one, each eater,
whistles a name, flaps against the glass
three, four times, body a bony knocker.
A young girl, the palest there, rises
with a start, as if she'd been summoned.
'Who is it?' she half-closes the window,
explores the dim garden, her blonde head
probing darkness, peering and peering...
'Who is it? But, Mamma, no one's there!'
She re-shuts the glass, with a first shudder
sits back at the table, between her sisters.
But already one can hear the festive chirrup
of children delighted at their surprise guest
and gatecrasher since darted from sight.
Around the lamp it circles, droning –
funeral's messenger, a dismal mascot.

Translated from the Italian by Martin Bennett

Acherontia Atropos from Epistole Entomologiche

L'Acherontia frequenta le campagne,
i giardini degli uomini, le ville;
di giorno giace contro i muri e i tronchi,
nei corridoi più cupi, nei solai
più desolati, sotto le grondaie,
dorme con l'ali ripiegate a tetto.
E n'esce a sera. Nelle sere illuni
fredde stellate di settembre, quando
il crepuscolo già cede alla notte
e le farfalle della luce sono
scomparse, l'Acherontia lamentosa
si libra solitaria nelle tenebre
tra i camerops, le tuje, sulle ajole
dove dianzi scherzavano i fanciulli,
le Vanesse, le Arginnidi, i Papilî.
L'Acherontia s'aggira: il pippistrello
l'evita con un guizzo repentino.
L'Acherontia s'aggira. Alto è il silenzio
comentato, non rotto, dalle strigi,
dallo stridio monotono dei grilli.
La villa è immersa nella notte. Solo
spiccano le finestre della sala
da pranzo dove la famiglia cena.
L'Acherontia s'appressa esita spia
numera i commensali ad uno ad uno,
sibila un nome, cozza contro i vetri
tre quattro volte come nocca ossuta.
La giovinetta più pallida s'alza
con un sussulto, come ad un richiamo.
«Chi c'è?» Socchiude la finestra, esplora
il giardino invisibile, protende
il capo d'oro nella notte illune.
«Chi c'è? Chi c'è?» «Non c'è nessuno. Mamma!»
Richiude i vetri, con un primo brivido,
risiede a mensa, tra le sue sorelle.
Ma già s'ode il garrito dei fanciulli
giubilante per l'ospite improvvisa,
per l'ospite guizzata non veduta.
Intorno al lume turbina ronzando
la cupa messaggiera funeraria.

Guido Gozzano

Translation commentary

In January I found myself up in Scotland, with a whole month free from teaching and the weariness of my own voice. Despite the snow and polar wind outside, there on the window's inside ledge nestled two butterflies, reminding me that inside my suitcase was a collected works of Guido Gozzano, the last section – Epistole Entomologiche – devoted to just such a creature. The subject matter, then, seemed something of gift. All the more so given that the poem sequence itself – Gozzano's 'congedo poetico' / poetic farewell (of which 'Acherontia Atropos' is just one part) – also marks his farewell to rhyme, making any translator's task that little bit easier. Secondly, a rare privilege for a translator, the poem came with Gozzano's preliminary draft in prose thrown in, so helping to pin down the meaning. Thirdly, the series of poems was left unfinished, endowing the task of translation with a sense of urgency. To quote the editorial notes on Gozzano's premature death from TB, the poem was found 'on four pages torn from an exercise book of which the cover is lost. The writing is in pen, black ink becoming progressively less intense, with occasional additions in pencil.' This with another note on how Gozzano had remarked to his mother, 'If I don't make it through (his illness), the fragments of Epistole Entomologiche will find themselves without an editor.' Translator then as part, however belatedly, of a rescue team, seeking to ensure that Gozzano's fears remain unfounded.

So much for the translator. The original poet has long, like the proverbial butterfly sprawling upon a pin, been grouped with the so-called 'Crepusculari'/'Twilighters', his having written himself into a hyper-literary dead end. Epistole Entomologiche marked a new beginning, the young disillusioned and ironic literateur finding in a lifelong passion for entomology a new way to re-connect.

Martin Bennett