The Morgue

By Gottfried Benn
(Translated from German by Jim Bartruff)


I Little aster

Someone had clamped a purple aster
between the beer man’s teeth!
He’d drowned but I raised him
to the table, cracking his chest
using the longest pair of scissors,
amputating tongue,
dividing his lips, slicing his gums,
which shocked her into gliding
into his brain to hide.
As I sewed him back together,
I packed her deep between his ribs:
My dear, I made a vase!
Drink deep of him and rest ye soft,
O tiny purple aster!


II Pretty babies

The virgin girl was on the shelf too long.
Her lips were horribly gnawn.
I cracked her chest, and I saw her esophagus
was spindled with holes.
Under the arbor of her diaphragm,
one little sister had died.
The rest of the nest of adolescent rats
had lived on her liver and kidneys;
they’d sipped her ice cold blood;
until their Death
arrived and was nasty and neat.
I threw them all in water! O, how wee
pink muzzles can shriek!


III Cycle

A murdered, unknown prostitute,
a lonely molar
filled with gold.
The others looked to be waiting
for a date.
Our attendant knocked it out,
put it in his pocket
and began to dance.
Now, he said,
she’s dirt we can put in the earth.


IV Negro bride

Her neck was pillowed in a bed of blonde-
black blood. The sun raved in her hair, and licked
along her white, exsanguinated thighs. It knelt
before her brownish nipples, undefiled
by childbirth, knife wounds, blue tattoos.
A nigger next to her was sliced from eye
to chin. A horse had kicked him, drilling grooves
into his small white inner ear canals
with angry, filthy shoes.
She lay beside him, sleeping like a bride
upon the hem of happiness, a love
that’s poised on tiptoe to take flight
into forever.
Until I sank my knife
into her white, unguarded throat.
Around her hips the purple squirt
of rancid blood wrapped like a skirt.


V Requiem

Two to a table. Men and women,
crosswise. Jammed and naked. Out of pain.
Each cranium uncapped, bivalved each chest,
fresh bodies born on Tombstone’s train.
Three bowls abrim with brains and balls—
God’s cathedrals and the devil’s prams—
now mixing in the earthen bowls,
Golgotha with the fall of man.

The scraps in coffins are the newly born:
kid’s tits, the men’s shins, the hair of wives.
I saw a couple of them who’d been whores
wrapped in maternal love there side by side.


Gottfried Benn was a 21-year-old medical student, working in the Berlin morgue when “The Morgue” was published pre-World War 1. He was briefly Hitler’s “literary” chief before rejecting Nazism early on, and was later banished to various war zones to care for sexually transmitted diseases in soldiers. He had a modest literary career in the 20s and 30s in Germany. “The Morgue” is translated into English by Jim Bartruff.

Jim Bartruff’s work has appeared in Fat City Review, New Verse News, Two Hawks Quarterly, American Tanka, JAMA, Canto, Barney, and Drastic Measures. He has won the William Carlos Williams and Academy of American Poets prizes. A third-generation native of Los Angeles, he was previously a print journalist and screenwriter, now living in Portland, Oregon.