Stephen Jay Gould’s Charming Poem for Oliver Sacks’s Birthday, Read by Bill Hayes
In loving praise of “this man, who’s in love with a cycad but once could have starred in a bike ad.”
By Maria Popova
“Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood,” Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) wrote in looking back on his extraordinary life during what he knew would be his final year. For decades, he celebrated his dual love of chemistry and birthdays by acquiring a physical form of the chemical element with the periodic table number corresponding to the age he was turning that year.
On Sacks’s gadolinium birthday in 1997, the great science writer Stephen Jay Gould composed a very bad, very lovely poem celebrating his friend’s scientific loves and lovable eccentricities. This playful cascade of allusions to Sacks’s influential books and the singular enchantments of his personhood appears in On the Move (public library) — Sacks’s sublime memoir of a life fully lived, in which he recounts Gould’s warm generosity in hosting birthday parties, writing birthday poems, and always baking a birthday cake using his mother’s recipe.
At the inaugural Universe in Verse, science writer and photographer Billy Hayes — the love of Sacks’s life and the author of the beautiful memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me — read Gould’s charming poem and prefaced it with an affectionate remembrance of its subject. Please enjoy:
FOR OLIVER’S BIRTHDAY, 1997
by Stephen Jay Gould
This man, who’s in love with a cycad
But once could have starred in a bike ad
King of multidiversity
Hip! Happy birth-i-day
You exceed what old Freud, past head psych, had.
One legg’d, migrained, color blinded
Awak’ning on Mars, and hat-minded
Still lives life to the max
While his swimming leaves dolphins behinded.
For more of Sacks’s extraordinary and irreplaceable spirit, revisit his wisdom on narrative as the pillar of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and the paradoxical power of music, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse, including astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel, Rosanne Cash reading Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, poet Marie Howe reading her touching tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, generously composed bespoke for The Universe in Verse and a winner of the 2018 Rhysling Award for best long poem.
Published July 8, 2018