It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and other tragedies of married life
Pages: 110; Price: £10.00
Date Reviewed: September 2004
Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004
American poet Judith Viorst is one of very few writers published by Persephone who is still alive, which means that she has written her own foreword, and even that is irresistible. In it, she explains a little about her background, starting off by telling the reader that when she married in 1960, she planned to be a wife who wore a "filmy peignoir and a touch of perfume at breakfast, where my husband and I would argue over Plato's philosopher-kings". It was her realization that this dream would not come true that inspired this book, and one of the most endearing features of this book is its ring of absolute truth. By the time she had three young sons and had realized that her dreams would not come true, she faced the situation with humor and grit, and wrote some poems about it - hilarious, slightly cynical, and universally recognized to be true.
When younger, her writing had been "dark, despairing and littered with corpses", which she eventually blames on her mother for reciting Poe's "Annabel Lee" to her as a child. But now, realizing that romantic death and doom doesn't have much of a place in a family home, she changed her style completely, choosing humor over homicide, as she puts it. After the poems were published she was flooded with letters from women delighted to have found that someone else felt the same way they did.
The poems look at marriage and motherhood with an unflinching eye; one of my favorites, which I am going to photocopy for friends, is Nice Baby:
Last year I had a shampoo and set every week, and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of
our discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber's strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.
It's not just about the family scene, though; both It's Hard to be Hip and another collection of poems contained within this book, People and Other Aggravations, look at the wider world in the context of changed priorities, uneasily considering the new world she has entered. The characters introduced include supposedly perfect couples, the people who are formidably intelligent, or eco-warriors, or alarmingly trendy; and Viorst examines them with a caustic eye, noting that
We can't decide
Who we want them to think
The usual bones of contention are here - money, sex, mother-in-laws and domestic chores as well as keeping up with the Jones's and wondering what happened to the principles you used to have. It's frank and fresh; it's not pretending to be great poetry, just a slice of real life with some lovely shocks thrown in - in fact Viorst is slightly mocking of art in general, using it in her poems as a means by which people elevate themselves to heights of pretension. There is also a wealth of quotable material here for almost every occasion, which in our sound-bite world is always popular.
Some of it reminds me slightly of one of my favorite humorous poems, That Reminds Me, by Ogden Nash ("And after a silence fraught with romance she says, I think this little table would look better where that little table is, but then where would that little table go, have you any suggestions?...It isn't that nothing is sacred to them, it's just that at the Sacred Moment they are always thinking of something else.") Romance is deflated in a similar way in Viorst's poems; however the crucial difference is in the women's perspective, with emphasis on the occasional failure of feminist principles to live up to reality; Viorst is the light-hearted inheritor of a female tradition.
The endpapers were difficult to choose, according to Persephone's catalogue, but the fabric chosen is perfect - a 1968 Liberty fabric called "Bangles", exported to America that year, which with its bright pink irregular design is a typically Sixties design, rooted very much in contemporary culture, just like the poems.