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The Stephen Spender Prize 2016 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, first prize

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2016 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Lesley Saunders


Listen to Poem

I let him come.
He sneaks on tiptoe
right up to my ear;
under its ribs my heart
quivers, quickens
as the excitement mounts:
first the forest appears,
then the woodland-sequel,
more mist than snow to the touch –
from the new poem's
very first line the paper sucks up
every waif-word
and an ugliness steals in,
a cunning hungry thing
crouching there incognito,
pretending to be tame and yet so wolfish
that he's the kernel of light
and then the noise of its cracking;
he's lithe on the path,
doubling back on himself,
running with the pack, loping alone;
pussy-footing through the night
he trails moonlight behind him
like a mink coat.
I feel him when the hairs on my skin
lift, and in the delicious dizziness
of my private pulse –
in the midst of my writing, in my dream-life,
I slip all his clothes slowly off
and slide him down beside me.

Translated from the Portuguese by Lesley Saunders


Deixo que venha
se aproxime ao de leve
pé ante pé até ao meu ouvido
Enquanto no peito o coração
e se apressa no sangue enfebrecido
Primeiro a floresta e em seguida
o bosque
mais bruma do que neve no tecido
Do poema que cresce e o papel absorve
verso a verso primeiro
em cada desabrigo
Toca então a torpeza e agacha-se
um lobo faminto e recolhido
Ele trepa de manso e logo tão voraz
que da luz é a noz
e depois o ruído
Toma ágil o caminho
e em seguida o atalho
corre em alcateia ou fugindo sozinho
Na calada da noite desloca-se e traz
consigo o luar
com vestido de arminho
Sinto-o quando chega no arrepio
da pele, na vertigem selada
do pulso recolhido
À medida que escrevo
e o entorno no sonho
o dispo sem pressa e o deito comigo

Maria Teresa Horta
Reproduced by permission of the poet

Translation commentary

My attraction to Portuguese poetry goes back forty years to the New Portuguese Letters, which challenged my sense of what literature could accomplish, formally as well as psychologically and politically. The Three Marias – Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa – exemplified the new feminist resistance that they enacted through a paradoxical combination of public protest and intimate female friendship. To my enormous pleasure, I finally met Maria Teresa Horta last year in a Lisbon pastelaria! I learnt that her work is still silenced – these days by a general wish to 'forget all of that'.

Although I'm still a relatively new student of Portuguese, my background in French and Latin has enabled me to have a grasp of its general lexical features and syntactical structures. I also referred, for this poem, to online translations, one in German and one by Ana Hudson, who has brought so many contemporary Portuguese poets to an English readership.

'Poema' is difficult to translate because of the abbreviated, even dislocated, diction that disguises itself as something direct and uncomplicated – a feature I've tried to replicate, though I have included punctuation in my version – but it's a very interesting poem, not least because of what I take to be its exploration of what the equivalent, for a female poet, might be of the 'muse' who inspires male poets. The masculine prowler-intruder, wolfish and dangerous, who ends up in her bed could be compared with Ted Hughes' 'The Thought-Fox', from the nocturnal forest setting to the sudden and alarming entry of the animal into the human realm – alarming but actually welcomed by the poet in both cases. However, Horta's working of the trope is more erotic, more intimate, than Hughes': the wolf is, to use a Jungian term, Horta's animus in a way that Hughes' fox – who is most definitely not a vixen – cannot be his anima. That is perhaps why Hughes' fox is clearly and distinctly seen, whilst Horta's wolf remains almost out of sight but is deeply and sensuously felt. Hughes' fox turns out to be the poet's poem; Horta's wolf emerges as the poem's poet.

Lesley Saunders