So it was with the suitcase left in front
of the hotel — cinched, broken-locked,
papered with world ports, carrying what
mattered until then, when turning your back
to cup a match it was taken, and the thief,
expecting valuables instead found books written
between wars, gold attic-light, mechanical birds singing
and the chronicle of your country’s final hours.
What, by means of notes, you hoped to become:
a noun on paper, paper dark with nouns:
swallows darting through a basilica, your hands up
in smoke, a cloud about to open over the city, pillows
breathing shallowly where you had lain, a ghost
in a hospital gown, and here your voice,
principled, tender, soughing through
a fence woven with pine boughs:
Writing is older than glass but younger
than music, older than clocks or porcelain but younger than rope.
Dear one, who even in speaking is silent,
for years I have searched, usually while asleep,
when I have found the suitcase open, collecting snow,
still holding your vade mecum of the infinite,
your dictionary of the no-longer-spoken,
a commonplace of wounds casually inflicted,
and the slender ledger of truly heroic acts.
Gone is your atlas of countries unmarked by war,
absent your manual for the preservation of hours.
The incunabulum is lost — both your earliest book
and a hatching place for your mechanical birds—
but the collection of aperçus having to do
with light laying its eggs in your eyes was found,
along with the prophecy that all mass murders were early omens.
In an antique bookshop I found your catechism of atrophied faiths,
so I lay you to rest without your psalter,
nor the monograph wherein you state your most
unequivocal and hard-won proposition:
that everything must happen but to whom doesn’t matter.
Here are your books, as if they were burning.
Be near now, and wake to tell me who you were.
Carolyn Forché has been an important voice in American poetry since the publication of her first collection, Gathering the Tribes, which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award for 1976. She characterizes her work and the work of other poets who deal with the horrors of modern history — such “unpoetic” subjects as repression, political terror, and mass extermination — as “the poetry of witness.” Originally published in the New Yorker, “The Lost Suitcase” appears in the current issue of Poetry International and is reprinted here by permission.