Poem | Philately

(Abdessalem Benyahia/Pexels)

It happens every year: a dead man
is elected justice of the peace.
The jury is sequestered, each juror
having been asked “Are you now or
have you ever been a collector 
of stamps?” because the defendant
smuggled the drug money in rare
stamps from the Caribbean island
whose aged dictator appears 
on airmail issues. 
                When cigarettes are
banned in public, the dictator’s cigarette 
is air-brushed out of the picture, 
which is one way to erase the past. 
You can also change the name 
of the country, inflate the currency,
inflame the populace, and kill 
the old people who remember
the old days. 
      “You get all that from 
a set of postage stamps?” 
            Yes, though
they, too, are disappearing from our lives.
As a collectible, coins have left stamps
in the dust the way Secretariat outdistanced 
the field at the Belmont. Nevertheless, 
when the passenger beside me asks, 
“What do you do?” I like to say “I’m 
a philatelist,” and see what happens. 

Published in the March 2021 issue: 
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David Lehman is the editor of the Oxford Book of American Poetry, the general editor of the Best American Poetry anthology series, and the author of such recent books as One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir and Playlist: A Poem. He writes a monthly column on movies for the American Scholar.

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