Gottfried Benn, Four Poems
[My translation of four poems by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956), a medical doctor, began as early Expressionist, then originally supported Nazi movement until 1936; Nazis banned his work in 1937; nihilist, later poetry more cerebral, neo-Classical, influential on post-war German poetry especially with his Probleme der Lyrik in 1951; ‘the lyrical I is a broken I, a fenced I, experienced in fleeing, dedicated to grief. It is always waiting for its hour in which to become interested in moments, waiting for its southern complexes with their ‘rush value’, i.e. narcotic value, in which the piercing of coherence, i.e. the demolition of reality, can be achieved which creates freedom for the poem – through words’]
The mouth of a girl that had long lain in the reeds
looked so gnawed away.
When the chest was broken open, the gullet was so perforated.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
a nest of young rats was found.
One little sister lay dead.
The others were living off liver and kidneys,
drinking the cold blood and had
here enjoyed a beautiful youth.
And beautifully and swiftly their death came too:
They were all thrown into water.
Oh, how the little snouts squeaked!
A drowned beer lorry driver was heaved onto the table.
Somebody had stuck a dark-light-purple aster
between his teeth.
When I, starting from the chest,
under his skin
with a long knife
cut out his tongue and gums
I must have bumped it because it slid
into the brain lying next to it.
I packed it into his chest cavity
between the cotton
when we sewed him up.
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest in peace,
Man and Woman Walking Through Cancer Barracks
This row here are the disintegrated wombs
and this row the disintegrated breasts.
Bed stinks to bed. The nurses alternate on the hour.
Come, have no fear of lifting this blanket.
Look, this lump of fat and foul juices,
that was once big for some man
and was also called ecstasy and home. –
Come, look at this scar on the breast.
Can you feel the rose garland of soft knots?
Go have a feel. The flesh is soft and doesn’t hurt. –
This one here is bleeding as from thirty bodies.
No one has got that much blood. –
This one had a child
first cut out of her cancerous womb. –
They’re left to sleep. Day and night. – The new ones
are told: here you can sleep yourself well again. – Only Sundays
for the visits are they left a little more awake. –
Food is not consumed much anymore. Backs
are raw. You can see the flies. Sometimes
the nurse washes them. Like washing off benches. –
Here the field is swelling around every bed.
Flesh is being flattened down to earth. Glow is expending itself.
Juice is preparing its flow. Earth is calling. –
Oh that we were our primal ancestors.
A little lump of slime in a warm moor.
Life and death, fertilising and giving birth
Would slide out from our dumb juices.
An algal leaf or a dune hill,
Formed by wind and weighted downwards.
Even a dragonfly’s head, a gull’s wing
Would be going too far and suffer too much.