Ruth Bass | Poet pokes at all aspects of aging, with herself often the target

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RICHMOND — "Still writing your column?" they'd ask my octogenarian husband. "Yep," he'd reply. "No heavy lifting." And thus, the writing went on until after he moved up a decade and became a nonagenarian. So, it's not surprising that Judith Viorst, known in this house as Judy, has published a new volume of her poetic look at life at the age of 88. Logically, given her other salutes to passing decades, it's titled "Nearing 90."

Her wit and wisdom do not fail her, even though she mutters about "the days dwindling down." So, how does she do it? The process is not a ritual, the way it is for many writers. She needs a pad and a pencil, sometimes the computer, but she usually starts with paper.

She does admit to being "very, very obsessional." When an idea is percolating, she says, "In my nightgown, I walk from the bedroom to the office and sit down to write, don't even brush my teeth." Or apply the eyeliner that she's also a little obsessed with.

While this book has several poems indicating how she and her husband of 59 years periodically admit they are aging, her decades of commentary on the human condition show little sign of decline. The poems are sometimes laugh out loud, often smilers and — if you're a man or woman of a certain age — poignant and a trigger for memories of your own.

The reader has to think that many of the situations in poems about health, about forgetting things, about nursing home visits, or about dying friends have roots in reality. Indeed, they do. Some of the best are her reflections on the "viable widower" who comes home from his wife's funeral to find a pile of the inevitable casseroles left by the neighborhood widows. She confesses that a widower friend was the inspiration and not long ago, he found a new mate, not disrespecting his late wife, but because, as the poem says, "in those sweet years they shared together He has learned how to be a husband, not a widower."

Judy's husband, journalist Milton Viorst, makes frequent, semi-anonymous appearances in her verses, whether she's threatening him not to die before she does, or whether they're deciding they're too likely to doze when it's an 8:30 curtain time, so they settle on matinees. Part of her truth in poetry makes it clear that they have their tempestuous moments [and resolve them], and she admits she's had to "make peace" with the fact that he's not "a big poetry person." So, when she's reading some lines to him and he insists he can hear her and read The New York Times at the same time, she calls it "irritating."

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But how does he feel about the times when he's exposed to the world in her lines? Or how do any of her friends feel when they bump into themselves? "Everybody's gotten used to it, and no one can get mad," she says. "I'm the No. 1 target — the person I make the most fun of is me."

Does anyone in her presence worry whether they're being observed, dissected, stored for use in a poem? My personal testimony would be an emphatic "no." You're enjoying a friend — her intense conversation, her thoughtful views on everything from politics to women's rights to the condition of a sick friend. If you're lucky, you may also be enjoying her excellent cooking. And, it's also true, every writer saves every experience into some cupboard of his/her brain.

Judy barely remembers life without writing poetry. She was 7 when she composed the first one, which infuriated and upset her parents because she wrote that they were dead and described their life with the angels. Despite their reaction, she went on to write "a lot of tragic poems" as a child.

She's also the author of a number of best-selling children's books of which the most famous is "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," which became a Disney movie and later, with Judy writing the book, a musical that played in the Berkshires and is still performed regularly. But my personal favorite is "I'll Fix Anthony," in which younger brother Nick airs his grievances about Anthony and repeatedly resolves, "When I am 6, I'll fix Anthony."

"Nearing 90" [Simon & Schuster], is Judy's 45th book. Whether in a nightgown or duly turned out with eyeliner, etc., she has observed humanity for more than the seven stages of man, assigning neither mewling nor oblivion. And never as gloomy as Shakespeare. In a couple of years, she could launch her paean to 100 in that office in Washington, D.C. After all, heavy lifting is not involved, and as she says herself, "I don't need a mood, I don't need a muse."

Ruth Bass lives in Richmond. Her website is ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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