Suitcase Song

By Albert Goldbarth b. 1948 Albert Goldbarth
John-O was given a key to the apartment. The deal   
was this: if Phil died suddenly, and John-O heard,   
he would rush on over, enter the apartment, leave   
unseen with Phil’s brown suitcase, and secretly pitch it   
into the mounded deeps of the city dump.   
Simply, there were things that Phil didn’t want   
to hurt his family with. Do you have yours?   
I have mine. The brown suitcase. Sasha’s sister,   
on her deathbed—dinky, frail, just a mild   
skim-milk trickle of a hospice patient—
tensed, sat up, and unloosed   
such confessional invective that it seemed the walls   
and the sheets would have to be splattered in shit,   
her cancer having acted with the harsh, disbursing   
force of a tornado on the brown and hard-shelled   
suitcase in her electrochemical memory webs.   
Is yours secure? from love? from sodium pentathol?   
Last year, when a tornado hit our fringe   
of downtown businesses, the air was alive for counties around   
with the downward dance of naked canceled checks,   
handwritten notes, hotel receipts, e-mail transcripts,   
smeary Polaroids, a swirl of lacy underwisps   
that jellyfished the skies, and from The G-Spot Shoppe   
a rain of plastic pleasure aids, of which one prime example   
pierced a cow between the eyes and struck her dead.   

Maybe AIDS—I wasn’t sure. But he was dying,   
that was sure: as dry as a stick of human chalk,   
and making the terrible scritch-sound of a stick of chalk,   
in his throat, in the community air, in the room   
across from Sasha’s sister. Something . . . hidden
in the trace of rundown aura still around him   
as we chatted there one morning . . . a tv? a sissyboy tv?   
I wasn’t sure, but it was obvious   
his life-chalk held a story not yet written,   
not confessed yet   
for this storyniverous planet.   
And when I remembered my mother’s own   
last days . . . the way a person is a narrative,   
the strength of which is either   
revelation or withholding. It was summer, and the garden   
at the nursing home was fat with summer’s pleasures:   
flowered mounds like reefs of coral,   
bees as globular as whole yolks.   
In her room, my mother disappeared a breath   
at a time, and everything else was only a kind of scenery for that.   
The wink of pollen in the light. The birds. Their feather-lice.   
The bursting spores. Those opened-up   
cicada husks abandoned on the patio   
—the small, brown, unlocked luggage   
that’s completed its work in this world.

Albert Goldbarth, “Suitcase Song” from Saving Lives. Copyright © 2001 by Albert Goldbarth. Reprinted with the permission of The Ohio State University Press,

Source: Poetry (April 2000).


This poem originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Poetry magazine

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April 2000
 Albert  Goldbarth


Acclaimed for its dense, expansive form and linguistic energy, Albert Goldbarth’s poetry covers everything from historical and scientific concerns to private and ordinary matters. His numerous, highly-regarded collections are often filled with long poems which range in style from playful and conversational to serious and philosophical. Goldbarth’s unique style is a mix of complex ideas and detailed descriptions woven together . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Family & Ancestors, Relationships, Health & Illness, Living, Death, Landscapes & Pastorals, The Body

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy, Metaphor

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