October 22, 2019

Well Versed

The trouble with reading Judith Viorst’s delightful new book of verse, “Suddenly Sixty, And Other Shocks of Later Life,” is that you recognize another decade has gone by in her life and so, presumably, in yours as well. “Suddenly Sixty “follows on the high heels of those earlier guideposts – “It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty,” “How Did I Get to Be Forty,” and “Forever Fifty” – and like them charts the changes and new quirks in her life as another 10 years flit by.

Her books of light verse have always seemed to me a form of social commentary, ongoing sketches of the American cultural scene that put her in the company of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jules Feiffer and Nora Ephron: On stage, in cartoons, on film and in light verse we are treated to snapshots, often with an edge, of the author (and by extension, of ourselves) responding to the latest manners and mores of our time. We witness the social exchanges with lovers and spouses and parents and children and friends. The subtext could just as easily read, “The Psychoneurosis of Everyday Life.”

Is it a surprise that Nichols and May, Feiffer, Ephron and Viorst are all Jewish?

Reading “Suddenly Sixty,” I have to admit life kept intruding, kept elbowing aside Viorst’s wry lines. The fact is I know the author and her husband, Milton Viorst. When I read one of her poems about marriage, “In the Beginning,” I can’t resist comparing verse with the real thing.

What I remember, though, is a description of their early courtship. Judy and Milton had dated briefly in college in New Jersey and then gone their separate ways. (He is a little caustic about her preference for fraternity types during those years.) About 10 years later, one Sunday evening, Milton, on his way home to Washington, D.C., from Martha’s Vineyard, called his old girlfriend from college days.

It was about 1 a.m. Judy, of course, lived in Greenwich Village. She was still under 30.

The preliminaries on the telephone did not take very long, though I believe she said something like, “Do you know what time it is?” They met a half hour later at a Village coffee bar. It took about 10 minutes of how are you, what have you been doing with yourself these 10 years, do you remember what’s her name, before Milton somewhat delicately said something like, “Let’s cut all this. Do you want to have kids, and if so, how many?” Three months later they were married.

Another poem, “So My Husband and I Decided to Take a Car Trip Through New England,” also makes me smile (actually there are many).

I feel sure this poem is from experience and from the heart. It was the summer of 1976 and we all were in Boulder, Colo., determined to find a wonderful Italian restaurant for lunch that Milton knew, about an hour or two away, somewhere west of the city. And so we all embarked – husbands, wives and six children, three of theirs, three of ours.

We eventually, after some difficulty, found the restaurant – and without asking directions. The food was a tad less than wonderful, as I remember it, and afterwards, as a treat for the children and a way of walking off the lunch, we went climbing and hiking in the nearby woods and rocky hills.

Judy had designer boots, as I recall. There was much falling and sliding on one’s rump, and occasional tears from one or another child, and finally a sit-down strike with a declaration by one of the adults that holidays should be spent in Paris, not sliding on your ass in some godforsaken Colorado wilderness. I leave that for another book.

The point is that the verse is witty and speaks to our vulnerable side precisely because we recognize the truth of the writer’s feelings. Viorst is a keen observer of the social details that make up our fragile and different identities. That’s what the poems are about. And their stamp of authenticity is a reflection of a life that has been well and humanely lived, not just observed.

Gene Lichtenstein is founding editor of The Jewish Journal.