The Unthinkable

"in a world where war is the natural state of affairs," writes the New York poet David Lehman, the unthinkable surrounds us all--the ones with "dough," "the refugee who cannot lost his German accent," even those whose aim is "to live at peace."
David Lehman
September 1, 2015

The Unthinkable

By David Lehman

                                        -- for Jess Smith, who prompted it

The recruit worked on ciphers and broke
the Soviets’ renowned “condor code” back
in September 1962, before the big crisis, when “missives“
meant “missiles,” and the way to win was to wink.

A wink got you out of any jam those days
when ballroom dancing was still in fashion
and young women in ball gowns thought the unthinkable
as they let clumsy cadets drag them across the floor.

The plink of fate is something that science can’t abolish
with its neutrons and angstroms and plancks and hadrons.
That is one reason why I turned my back on the merchants
of advanced micro devices, new chips, killer apps.

When I think of the life I could have led
on rush hour mornings, briefcase in hand
and Wall Street Journal under my arm, do I think
of all the dough I could have made?

No. I am luckier than
the refugee who cannot lose his German accent
in an office building on Liberty Street or even
at Harvard or the State Department.

My aim is not to be renowned,
to dance with Vera Ellen in a turtleneck
or Ginger Rogers in a ball gown. My aim is to live at peace
in a world where war is the natural state of affairs.

The rules have changed, but I have allies in men and women
as young as I was when I first broke codes and committed odes
to memory, because we had neither paper nor pen and ink.
When I wink at you, it’s because I loved being alive when

I walked into the room. The unthinkable is nearer than you think
and can happen at any moment, like a collision or a disease
and we know this, and yet it always comes as a surprise.
Listen: Can you hear the muted plink?

David Lehman's books include Sinatra's Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (HarperCollins, 2015) and New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).

December 4, 2015