My grandson’s favorite Christmas song this year is Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives. This is really not so astonishing – the first record we ever played for him was a collection of folk songs by Burl Ives. By the time Saul was two he was requesting him by name: “Play Bur Lives.”
What did astonish me today, though, was realizing that Saul knows all the words to the song. I was impersonating a fly on the wall with a magazine while he built a little Lego house and had all his Lego men come visit. The entire time he was working, he sang. Say Hello to folks you know / and everyone you meet. Or sometimes just recited. Hey Ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see. With an entire village of different voices, tempos, timbres. Somebody waits for you / Kiss her once for me! Sometimes tuneful little boy soprano, sometimes gruff, briefly importuning, and when he noticed me listening quite loud and raucous. All the Holly Jolly variations.
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A four-year old is a highly evolved little primate. He knows just how far he can boss Pappy around before he’s crossed the line. He can ask for ice cream a half hour before supper and convince Pappy the request is not at all unreasonable. He operates on the rock solid premise that simply wanting a thing fully entitles the person to get it. Or, and this is much more likely, he knows all the rules full well but also knows from experience that with the one-hundred-and-first request the rule might shatter.
But what happens if I sometimes call the little anthropoid’s bluff and just laugh? He laughs too, and we go on to the next game.
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I bought Sarah Lindsay’s book Primate Behavior at a reading she gave in Southern Pines this year. Reading it is like an archeological dig: each poem must be read carefully, brushed with fine bristles, held up to the sky. No bulldozers, please. I’m still working my way, layer by layer. I’m discovering that there is unrevealed depth and complexity to us hominids. I wonder, how did Lindsay get hold of my family tree?
. . . . .
What was she looking for, the woman two days from
the end of a wasting death
who told her nursing daughter, “Shave my legs”?
Or the hospital-ridden one
who, coming out of ether, could only keep saying she couldn’t
without her panties on.
If one of us slips on ice, he or she
checks first for an audience, second for broken bones.
We are the apes
with mirrors inside our heads. We pick our noses,
we fart and enjoy it,
but this is rarely mentioned. We make fun of outdated clothes.
We listen to music.
In a thick place of mountain bamboo the
croons and cradles her young one in her arm.
With her other large hand
she catches her own dung and eats it.
A hum of insects and green wet rot.
The father beside her sleeps. Is it eight-thirty Monday?
His lower lip hangs on his chest.
Alone at her golden oak table
the young lady licks her finger, dots at the grains
of spilled sugar,
and licks it again.
Close to the Pole, where daytime stretches
and icebergs move in vast and moaning herd, a furry man
scrawls a few notes in Norwegian. He cannot carry a tune,
but he can make stew. He has thought of little else but stew
and warming his feet for weeks. Realizing
how dirty his face is, he tells himself:
I am here for no personal good, but to help make maps.
I am civilized. See the word Forward is drawn on my heart.
And he throws some dried fish to the dogs.
from Primate Behavior, Sarah Lindsay, Grove Press, © 1997 by Sarah Lindsay
Sarah Lindsay received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and currently lives in Greensboro. Primate Behavior was a National Book Award finalist. Lindsay’s latest book of poetry, Twigs and Knucklebones (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), was selected as a “Favorite Book of 2008” by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine.
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