A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest
with a long knife
under the skin
to cut out tongue and gums,
I must have nudged it because it slipped
into the brain lying adjacent.
I packed it into the thoracic cavity
with the excelsior
when he was sewn up.
Drink your fill in your vase!
Gottfried Benn, “Little Aster”, translated by Michael Hofmann.
The butcher’s is ill-suited to poetry — this assumption is so evident we forget to question it (which immediately places us outside poetry, since the questioning of evidence is the poetic gesture par excellence), excluding from our poetic horizons not just the smell of blood and the martyrdom of steak, but all of those complex rituals of food manipulation and techniques of killing crucial to the success of televised police narratives, invariably serial. One more reason to avoid their association with poetry! We think. Until we come upon the morgue-centric poet Gottfried Benn, who transformed professional autopsies into sublime, unrelenting poems, which cut the jugular of thought and dissect our piety, exposing its pathological degeneration as an indispensable means to rediscovering the path to its impossible health.
Such a path is, in this poem, entrusted to a small flower, a cadaveric double of the human cadaver body, which during the course of the poem exchanges its initial and traditional role of viaticum (vain homage of our farewells to the deceased) for that of traveller, carried in the corpse of the deceased (of whom we know only that he worked as a “drayman”) on route to an easy rest, which is but a term without reference in which we entomb the impenetrable night of the subject’s end.
The coroner, or anyone who deals with a dead body — a small useless object that remains from an “extinct” subject —, sublimates through technique and ritual the trauma of this natural reversion, which belies the alleged difference between person and thing, reducing it to an emptiness (fillable only with “excelsior”). The poet, in turn, handles this emptiness with a gesture as practically useless as symbolically meaningful. First he removes the deadman’s tongue to save it from the grave: speech is that which can be excised from the emptiness of afterwards. In what was said, the deadman can continue to speak beyond his own extinction. Next, he releases the deadman from the inertia of thingliness, returning to him his role as transporter and entrusting to him the flower of which he becomes a sarcophagus. The poet does not restore life to the deadman, but poetry is the flower which restores meaning to him, in a small gesture, as ineffectual as it is necessary, in which piety is rediscovered to be the health of the living being: entirely justified whilst powerless.
This, however, only happens by recognising that piety, like poetry — poetry as a form of piety —, is not a purely intellectual exercise: the poet that allows the flower to slip into the brain must correct his error by placing it in the “thoracic cavity” beside the heart. In the face of the mystery of night, drowned in death’s darkness, reason has no place: to become meaning, in the irrevocable victory of nothingness, the small lavender flower of the human word must be nestled in the heart and must drink its fill in the easy rest of that which lasts without having a future, in an afterwards that no longer belongs to it; in the dreamless sleep of poetry, which feeds on and lets itself be buried in the flesh, the universal container in which life and death are revealed as names for the same thing.
Translation by Jeffrey Childs
Teresa Bartolomei: She is Italian and married to a Portuguese for reasons of Allemagne majeure, which led her to the hedge "where the land ends and the sea begins". She enjoys hedges and limits because they give shape and form, and she thus tries to test them in texts where the word is not the means but the end, where the noise ends and meaning begins.