Man and Woman Go through the Cancer Ward

Benn, Gottfried

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Oct-25-1996


A man and woman walk through a cancer ward in which the man points out, "Here in this row are wombs that have decayed . . ." In other rows are "breasts" and "this great mass of fat . . . . " He instructs his companion to feel "rosary of small soft knots" on one woman's chest. The patients are dying. There is little to be done. "Here the grave rises up about each bed." Yet, "sap prepares to flow. Earth calls."


Gottfried Benn was a German physician who practiced in Berlin and specialized in venereal diseases. He was also a well-known Expressionist poet in Germany during the period between the wars. Later, his reputation suffered because he was considered a Nazi sympathizer, even though he never joined the party and was, in fact, kicked out of the National Chamber of Writers in 1937 and not permitted to publish because his writing was considered modernist and obscene. After the war, Benn's work was received enthusiastically by the German public.

This poem is from his first book, "Morgue" (1912), which at the time shocked and revolted both critics and the public. Note the stark detail and the use of medical metonymy in the substitution of organs (wombs and breasts) for patients. Note the sense of death and futility that suddenly (in the last line of the poem) turns into regeneration: "And sap prepares to flow . . . . "


First published: 1912

Primary Source

Prose, Essays, Poems (The German Library: Vol. 73)



Place Published

New York




Volkmar Sander