But his final book, Endpoint and Other Poems is an invitation to see him beyond his prolific pages. His diagnosis of cancer and the grim reality of his impending death influences many of the poems in the book.
This specter of mortality is present even in the seemingly mundane: copyright © 2009 by the Estate of John Updike. It was a sad reminder that one of my muses was gone.
Clive James wrote “Updike was always a clinical observer of his own body. Right to the wire he took inventory; he had the mind of a regimental quartermaster.” This is the lure of this poignant and serious volume of poems.
On his birthday in 2002, he wrote this poem that begins Endpoint.
“Mild winter, then a birthday burst of snow.
A faint neuralgia, flitting tooth-root to
knee and shoulder joint, a vacant head,
too many friendly wishes to parry,
too many cakes. Oh, let the years alone!
They pile up if we manage not to die,
glass dollars in the bank, dry pages on
the shelf. The boy I was no longer smiles.”
And a stanza later”
“Wife absent for a day or two, I wake
alone and older, the storm that aged me
distilled to a skin of reminiscent snow
so thin a blanket blades of grass show through.
Snow makes white shadows, there behind the yews,
dissolving in the sun’s slant kiss, and pools
itself across the lawn as if to say,
Give me another hour, then I’ll go.”
And the final stanza:
“Nature is never bored, and we whose lives
are linearly pinned to those aloof,
self-fascinated cycles can’t complain,
though aches and pains and even dreams-a-crawl
with wood lice of decay give pause to praise.
Birthday, death day – what day is not both?”
In a poem called Oblong Ghosts written just two months before he died, Updike writes:
“A wake-up call? It seems that death has found
the portals it will enter by: my lungs,
pathetic oblong ghosts, one paler than
the other on the doctor’s viewing screen.”
And a few weeks later on 11/23 from Mass General Hospital in Boston, he wrote:
“Benign big blond machine beyond all price,
it swallows us up and slowly spits us out
half-deafened and our blood still dyed: all this
to mask the simple dismal fact that we
decay and find our term of life is fixed.
This giant governance, a mammoth toy,
distracts us for the daytime, but the night
brings back the quiet and solemn dark.”
And the final stanza:
“My wife of thirty years is on the phone.
I get a busy signal, and I know
she’s in her grief and needs to organize
consulting friends. But me, I need her voice;
her body is the only locus where
my desolation bumps against the wall.”
Getting the words right was always important to Updike. Like another favorite author of mine, Thomas Wolfe, the elder, I revel in the parade of adjectives and the minute descriptions of things from plumbing fixtures to the way a woman’s hair is carefully braided. The criticism of Updike’s prose was usually about his verbal virtuosity – that his similes and metaphors short-circuited the reading experience…that the reader admired the sentences instead of losing oneself in the story.
I don’t disagree, but I have lost myself in so many stories and in so many authors, I read Updike or Tobias Wolff for other reasons beyond the story. It resonates with me like a Wyeth painting. An echo of the Updike’s essay-autobiography “Self Consciousness,”the prose is unabashedly self conscious.
But in Endpoint, Updike’s poems are even more directly personal and intimate. He is aware of his own self-consciousness but embraces death with the understanding of man as part of something larger – from his extended family to the world of letters.
So, I place Endpoint next to his collected short stories andRabbit Run. When I am short on insight and influence, I come back to bask in the words and a life well considered. And well lived.