The Trip Not Taken

by David Lehman

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I regret not having taken up the offer of a Cambridge colleague, a pathologist of proven insight and tact, to try LSD under his supervision. Having experienced no such drug, I remain at a loss to imagine, to conceptualise one of the principal agents of ruin and consolation, of desire and annulment at the anarchic heart of our culture. A ‘trip’ not taken.

—George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life

It was in Cambridge in 1970 or 1971 that I went to a lecture
by George Steiner,
an energetic man, who wore his pants too tight
and spoke with an international accent of indeterminate origin.
It was standing room only.
My friends and I stood in the back.
The subject was language and silence
or maybe language versus silence.
Language won.

Steiner praised the American students in Cambridge—
sharper, more daring than the English.
We beamed idiotically.
One of us raised his hand and said something
meant to prove Steiner’s point.
He used the words conceptualize and anarchic
in the same sentence.

My mind was where?
In the girls’ dormitory.
Listen to my story.
Nothing could be finer
than to be in her vagina
after listening to George Steiner
at the anarchic heart
of our culture.
Is the heart anarchic?

Nothing could be finer
than to walk among the amber
street lamps of Cambridge
after the lecture
and visit my friend’s sister
who brought blotter acid with her
from America
and what we did

we did without supervision
and we didn’t own a television
but we owed ourselves a vision
and we had it in front of a store
with women’s sweaters in the window
not on King’s Parade but the next street over.

I have to tell you: Steiner was brilliant.
And we had the experience
even if we did miss the meaning:
ruin and consolation, desire and
annulment. We took
the trip

Forthcoming in Yeshiva Boys, in the fall of 2009, from Scribner.

David Lehman lives in New York City. Earlier collections include Valentine Place (1996), The Daily Mirror (2000), and When a Woman Loves a Man (2005).  He is series editor of The Best American Poetry, which he initiated in 1988, and is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry.

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