July 17, 2019

Two Poets Elevate Matters of Life and Death

Life goes in only one direction, of course, and authors of all ages cannot help but notice that death is the ultimate destination. So we find both that Judith Viorst, a grand dame of American letters, and Kim Dower, a high-spirited poet who lives and works here in Los Angeles, are pondering the same themes in their latest books.

Viorst may be best known for her now-classic children’s book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” but her oeuvre spans more than a half-century and includes poetry, musicals, both fiction and non-fiction for adults, and intimate memoirs that share her own perspectives on a life well lived, the so-called “decade” series that started with “It’s Hard to Be Hip Over 30,” all of which prompts Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, to call Viorst “the Magellan of Advancing Age, the Dr. Spock for Seniors.”

“Nearing 90: and Other Comedies of Late Life” (Simon & Schuster) is Viorst’s latest book and the crowning title in her decade series. Charmingly illustrated by Laura Gibson, “Nearing 90” is summarized by the author as a book about “[w]hat happened [when] we got oldish, then older, then even older than that.”   Each short entry, some of which are poems and some of which are lists that read like poetry, is a polished jewel of long experience composed of lapidary words and phrases, glowing with hard-earned wisdom and yet sparkling with sly humor:

“It’s time that I gave up showing a little cleavage.

It’s time that he wore his shirts out instead of tucked in.

It’s time, when we tell a joke, that before we even begin,

We should first make sure we still remember the punch line.”

“He” refers to Milton Viorst, her spouse of six decades and a public intellectual in his own right, who appears in many of the entries. “All I can tell you about what marital bliss is/ Is that I’m still a fool for my husband’s kisses,” she writes in a poem titled “Still Kissing After All These Years.” “So whatever it is he’s doing, he’s done it just fine/ Since that very first kiss back in 1949.”

Of course, Viorst is brutally honest about the challenges of growing older. In the poem titled “A Warning (or Maybe a Love Song) for My Husband,” she issues a dire threat to the man who sleeps beside her: “The sentiment here may not thrill you,/ But listen, my love, carefully,” she writes. “Keep staying alive, or I’ll kill you. /Don’t you dare die before me.”

Still, the biggest surprise in Viorst’s beautiful, funny and deeply endearing book — and the greatest reward for the reader — is her relentless and contagious optimism. “I’m past my sell-by date,” she announces in the poem titled “On Nearly Ninety,” but any reviewer who is tempted to call it a farewell address is surely underestimating the author’s longevity. Viorst goes on to declare:

“But life’s crown is old age,

So I won’t slink off the stage.

Although not always with-it, I’m still here.

And since I plan to stay,

The role I hope to play

Is Queen Elizabeth — it’s not King Lear.”

Kim Dower is a cherished figure in the book industry and the former poet laureate of West Hollywood. Her fourth book, “Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave” (Red Hen Press), is the work of a woman who could be Viorst’s granddaughter but who shares the same power to capture tender and dire experiences in the amber of poetry. The topics of her provocative and richly rewarding poetry range from love and sex to loss and longing, as the book title suggests, but the very first poem in the collection is titled, significantly enough, “He Said I Wrote About Death.”

“I did not mean to write about death,

But rather how when something dies

We remember who we love, and we

Die a little too, we who are still breathing,

We who still have the energy to survive.”

Sometimes the shadow of loss falls across a scene of utter playfulness. “If You Give a Mouse a Mantra” opens with a scene of charm and whimsy (“If you give a mouse a mantra/ it will want a tiny cushion”) but introduces a series of escalating aspirations that eventually collapse under their own weight. “[T]he cat is ready to attack, jealous you haven’t given her/ a mantra or tiny cushion.”

Kim Dower could be Judith Viorst’s granddaughter but [she] shares the same power to capture tender and dire experiences in the amber of poetry.

“Listen for the sound of her brain

Changing: watch her pounce. See your mouse

Swallow its mantra. See the cushion transform

into a confetti of Emptiness.”

But even when the poetry shines, it throws a shadow, as in “The Secret
Afterlife of Bees.” When Dower ponders “a seventy pound beehive/ deep inside a wall of my house,” she recalls that “My mother used to cover her ears/ with her hands when a bee buzzed by./ It could die inside your brain and die,/ she told me when I was five.”

Both Viorst and Dower are “still breathing,” and both of these gifted writers display “the energy to survive,” to borrow Dower’s words. That’s the real gift they offer to their readers in these two exceptional books.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.