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

Open category, commended

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

Anne Stokes

peonies at pentecost

in every stage of unfolding the trusses nestle,
loaded packages, dense, tight and silent
in buds squats the urge towards plumpish
centres dressed-up in crimson and/or white
drooping blossoms on herbaceous stalks
dwell back to back and bloom themselves rotund.
when it started to rain, I held the heavy head
by the stem in my large hand,
and childhood came into the humid air,
piercing cries, coveting, induced by
pentecost. types of longing surged up inside
and went to ground again. as I heard the whispering
of its many thousand blooms, I wanted
to tousle, crumple, rob the rain-slicked peony,
pluck its blossoms, toss them around me,
stamp on them, and call out to friends, come see
the big fat flowering thing I have here,
round as a cat's head, white and without eyes, I, I,
I want to drive the head of a cat that isn't a cat's
through the mad clowder of my desires
stripped and handled, no, unharmed
I leave the noble peonies standing, motionless, stiff
amidst those tracks through which childhood charges.

Translated from the German by Anne Stokes


in allen phasen der faltung nisten die büschel,
geballte pakete, dicht, eng und stumm
hockt in knospen das drängen nach fetten
vermoddelten zentren in purpur und / oder weiß
wohnen rücken an rücken hinübergebogene blüten
auf krautigen stengeln und blühen sich rund.
als es zu regnen angefangen hat, ich am halm
in meiner großen hand den schweren kopf
gehalten habe, zog kindheit in die feuchte luft,
spitze schreie, habenwollen, pfingstgelockt
zum hang geworden. sehnsuchtsarten stiegen auf
und tauchten wieder ab. wie ich das flüstern
ihrer vielen tausend blüten hörte, wollte ich
die regennasse rose strubbeln, knüllen, fleddern
wollte ihr die blüten rupfen, um mich werfen,
und zertreten, freunde rufen, kommt und schaut
das fette große blütending, was ich da hab,
katzenkopfrund weiß und ohne augen, ich, ich,
ich will den katzenkopf, der keine katze ist
durch's irre rudel meiner wünsche treiben
kaputtgemacht und angefaßt, nein unversehrt
lass ich die hehren rosen reglos starr inmitten
jener bahnen stehn durch welche kindheit schnellt.

Monika Rinck
Reproduced by permission of the poet

Translation commentary

The Berlin-based poet Monika Rinck (b.1969) has received a number of awards for her poetry, including the Peter Huchel Prize in 2013, and, earlier this year, the Kleist Prize, which is bestowed annually for a writer's entire work. When the Kleist Society announced its selection, its president highlighted the poet's linguistic versatility as well as her thematic and tonal range.

'pfingstrosen' opens Rinck's 2004 collection Verzückte Distanzen, and displays all of these elements. What particularly attracted me to the poem, though, was its rhythm. Rinck, indeed, has described the writing of poetry as a 'rhythmic ceremony', and that is in full evidence in 'pfingstrosen', which advances from measured, objective contemplation of a peony to a wild, almost uncontrollable urge to destroy it, which is then reined in masterfully in the final lines.

Rinck's poetry often features apparent opposites, and in this poem, adulthood and childhood, reason and instinct, science and poetry, provide poetic tension. The broad challenge when translating it was to capture Rinck's stylistic and linguistic range as well as the tight yet flexible formal structure that accommodates the poem's varying rhythms and tempos, which reinforce the themes. The poem is also rich in alliteration and assonance, and these features, too, had to be replicated. More specifically, the opening sentence is as tightly packed as the peonies it describes, and this had to be unpacked and repackaged in English.

Lastly, a note on the title: 'pfingstrosen' would generally be translated as 'peonies' in English. The German, however, literally means 'Pentecostal roses', and since Pentecost, a time of greening and blooming celebrated in a famous Goethe poem, is an important element in Rinck's poem, I decided to feature Pentecost in the English title. I have also preserved the syntax and unconventional orthography throughout.

Anne Stokes