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David Kirby

The Higher Pantheism

“Ernest is in jail again,” my father said of the elderly man who did
            yard work for us on weekends, and when I asked why,
said he’d shot up the house after he came home and found his wife
            in bed with a guy, and I, who was 12 and had
an inkling already but wanted to hear my father say the words, asked,
            “What were they doing in bed together?” and he said,
“Well, I don’t think they were discussing the Higher Pantheism!”

What was my father’s idea of love? Something like that Petrarch sonnet
            “Blest Be the Day” in which the poet blesses the hour
and moment and “lovely land and place” where first he found himself
            imprisoned by two pure eyes! My dad would’ve have liked all that,
if not Petrarch’s vanity—would have liked Dante better, who played down
            his emotions in his great poem, though he and Petrarch
both were sustained by their love for good women, for Beatrice and Laura,

as my father was by his for Miss Josie, quite the beauty in her day,
            quite the object of desire, at least until my brother and I
came along and ruined everything and they began to live apart,
            though in the same house. If, as Pascal said, all
the unhappiness of mankind comes from one thing, which is not to know
            how to sit quietly in one’s room, then I think my dad
was pretty happy: love had its day, then no more higher pantheism for him.

And my mother? Hard to say, since even my dad’s terse utterances
            were voluble compared to her distracted silence.
They were silent together, though, which, as Bruno Bettelheim says
            in The Uses of Enchantment, is the whole idea
of companionship: to take what he calls “the sting”out of solitary existence,
            which is why Snow White has her prince, Hansel his Gretel,
and in fact my folks did live like brother and sister, first amorously

and then contentiously but with genuine affection when they were alone again
            in late life to go out for big meals and court each other sexlessly.
The other day I turn to page 682 in the dictionary I’d shared with my dad
            and find he had added an entry in his own hand
for “Love-bug (Plecia nearctica Hardy). Diptera: Bibionidae
            Also honeymoon fly, telephone bug, doubleheaded bug, united bug,
marsh fly, etc.” and think, My father interested in insects, imagine that.

David Kirby


The celebrated naturalist is telling me
            this heartbreaking story about the chimps
                        who were taught sign language until the funding
            for that project dried up, so the chimps were sent
to medical labs,  including ones where they were
            given the AIDS virus, but since they could sign,
                        the chimps would say "Please don't do this to me"
            or "Please don't hurt me again" when the scientists
came at them with their needles, and I’m saying,

Didn’t the scientists think about what they were doing
            or did they know what they were doing and just not care,
                        and the naturalist can see I’m upset about this,
            so he tells me the full story is in a book
by Eugene Linden called Poor Relations
            and I remind myself to remember this so I can tell
                        my students about it since they’re always complaining
            that I'm always "reading too much into" a poem, a play,
a story, their papers, their excuses, their lives,

and I say that's my job, that I get paid to read too much
            into things, even if I don't get paid too much to do it,
                        and they say, "That is not what I meant at all,"
            not knowing they're quoting Prufrock,
and when I tell them that's who they're quoting,
            they say they weren't, they don’t even know who
                        Prufrock is, they were just saying the same thing
            he said without knowing it, and why do I always have to
accuse them of reading things they haven't read?           

I blame it on their boyfriends, guys always giving
            advice on diet and exercise, correcting pronunciation,
                        expressing disbelief that their sweethearts
            don't know as much about current events as they do,
reporting on magazine articles they've read,
            analyzing the failed defenses of various sports teams,
                        saying "Studies show . . . ," explaining how movie heroes
            have committed errors that they, the boyfriends,
would never commit, not in a million years.

Still, I say, you have to know how to think,
            and when they say wrong, they're business majors,
                        I say Look, suppose your company was, I don't know,
            a pillow factory, and let's say you got this contract
to make pillows for prisons, and assuming                                
            the prisons would pay you whatever you make normally
                        for normal pillows, would you make these pillows
            thinner to punish the prisoners or would you figure
prison is punishment enough and prisoners are entitled

to pillows as nice as those on which rest the heads of ministers,
            politicians, and housewives? Or would you feel sorry
                        for the prisoners and make their pillows thicker
            and fluffier? And if the pillows were thinner,
would you charge less, or if thicker, would you charge more?
            What would you do, I say. Huh? What, even though,
                        when I think about all the things people have tried
            to explain to me that I still don’t understand—cricket,
Labanotation—I realize I'm no gene splicer myself.

When I get the Eugene Linden book,
            I find that its real title isn't Poor Relations after all
                        but Silent Partners, and the celebrated naturalist’s story
            about the chimps' piteous pleas wasn't true at all,
that without constant stimulation, even the smarter chimps
            didn't do much more than ask for extra fruit,
                        and even they stopped after a while. And  I thought,
            why couldn't I figure this out myself? These were monkeys,
for God's sakes, not Disney creatures with little squeaky voices.                       

And then I began to wonder about the other stories
            the celebrated naturalist had told me, like the one about
                        Ndoki, “the last Eden," the part of the Congo where
            the few remaining members of an endangered species of ape
lived and that journalists and scientists kept a secret until a Time writer
            learned that a team of Japanese primatologists was going in anyway
                        and broke the story. Or how, in the Antarctic,
            "ground blizzards" allow you unlimited vertical vision
but keep you from seeing a person or thing that might be

a few feet in front of you even though you can see
            the blue sky overhead. So I checked it out, and, yeah,
                        there really are ground blizzards,
            so that you might be making something with your hammer
and put it down and not find it, and you'd have to use another tool,
            and that’s what you’d have: confusion swirling all around you,
                        the unfamiliar tool in your hand,
            cold worse than anything you’ve ever imagined,
the voices of people you can’t see, and, overhead, what?

David Kirby is the W. Guy McKenzie Professor of English at Florida State University. His next book is entitled What Is a Book? and will be published by the University of Georgia Press this fall.

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