Nov. 19, 2004

Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil

by Sharon Olds

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil," by Sharon Olds, from The Wellspring © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.

Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil

In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no one else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at a stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill—
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful call of a young animal.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1861, Julia Ward Howe awoke from a deep sleep and wrote 5 verses of a song straight out on a scrap of paper.  Sung to the tune of "John Brown's Body,” it soon became the anthem of the North during the Civil War: The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln got up in front of about 15,000 people seated at a new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and delivered the Gettysburg Address. Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the Civil War, with 45,000 casualties over three days in early July that year. After the battle, a Gettysburg man named David Wills had the terrible task of identifying and burying the dead. Wills wrote Lincoln and asked him to attend the cemetery's dedication ceremony, because, he said, Lincoln's presence would:

" anew in the breasts of the Comrades of those brave dead a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority."

It was a foggy, cold morning, and Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon the sun broke out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and orator Edward Everett spoke for over two hours. Around 3 p.m. Lincoln got up to speak. He spoke for only two minutes, and when he sat down most of the people in the back of the crowd didn't know he'd even spoken: Lincoln thought his speech, the Gettysburg Address, was a failure. He ended with:

"From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

It's the birthday of critic and poet Allen Tate, born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899).

It's the birthday of poet Sharon Olds, born in San Francisco (1942).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show