By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 23, 2009
And Other Poems
By John Updike, Knopf. 97 pp. $25
John Updike's prose could sometimes seem so coldly beautiful, so self-aware, that critics occasionally questioned its effectiveness in fiction. Such verbal dandyism, it was thought, actually short-circuited the reading experience: Updike's striking similes and metaphors sucked attention away from the characters and plots. One admired the sentences instead of losing oneself in the story.
But poetry is different. In particular, light verse, at which Updike excelled, is almost by definition playful and self-regarding, overtly reveling in its own ingenuity and brilliance. The more clever, the more acrobatic, the more astonishing, the better. What may surprise, though, is that Updike's many serious poems are so frankly personal, full of wistfulness and wonder, and unafraid of being sentimental. For instance, "Dog's Death" and "Another Dog's Death" -- both included in his "Collected Poems 1953-1993" -- will leave even the most jaded reader near or in tears. I can testify to this.
"Endpoint and Other Poems" is, apparently, the last book that John Updike saw through the press before his death this past January. In these pages he writes with devastating plainness about illness and old age:
After a Tucson movie, some man in
the men's room mirror lunged toward me
with wild small eyes, white hair, and wattled neck --
who could he be, so hostile and so weird,
so due for disposal, like a popcorn bag
vile with its inner film of stale, used grease?
Where was the freckled boy who used to peek
into the front-hall mirror, off to school?
That's from one of a series of poems marking the author's birthday in the years between 2002 and 2007. In the last months of his life, Updike also described various hospital visits and procedures: "Days later, the results came casually through:/the gland, biopsied, showed metastasis." If L.E. Sissman, whose witty and civilized poetry Updike admired, hadn't already taken the title, this slender book could easily have been called: "Dying: An Introduction."
In "Flying to Florida" Updike reflects on, and identifies with, the snowbirds at Gate 16: "Now, agèd, average, dullish, lame, and halt,/we claim our due, our fun doom in the sun." In another poem, he is given a watch with a battery "guaranteed to last ten years, at least./Ten years! It will tick in my coffin while/my bones continue to deteriorate." "Colonoscopy" ends with an exchange between doctor and patient: " 'Perfect. Not a polyp. See you in/five years.' Five years? The funhouse may have folded." It's hard to judge the tone of these melodramatic comments. Bitter? Touched with gallows humor? Self-pitying? Resigned?
In the longest poem here, "The Author Observes His Birthday, 2005," Updike reflects on his career and its importance in giving meaning to his life:
And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!
I drank up women's tears and spat them out
as 10-point Janson, Roman, and ital.
At other times, though, he views those same books -- "the piled produce/of bald ambition" -- without much cheer, seeing in them only "the silence I dared break for my small time." Many of the poems speak plainly of his desolate awareness of his coming death. Lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, while his children and grandchildren visit, he asks himself: "Must I do this, uphold the social lie/that binds us all together in blind faith/that nothing ends, not youth nor age nor strength?" Elsewhere, he simply refers to "our wastrel lives." Certainly in youth we all spend our days as if there were an infinite number of tomorrows.
Several poems in "Endpoint" recall Updike's early years in Shillington, Pa. He remembers the "peppy knockout" cheerleader, later in life struck down by Parkinson's disease, and the friend whose "wild streak/was tamed by diabetes," which claimed his toes and feet. As man and writer, he is grateful for all they gave him:
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso -- all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.
To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life.
Like any good romantic, Updike recalls once more the happy pastimes of a long-vanished childhood:
To copy comic strips, stretched prone
upon the musty carpet -- Mickey's ears,
the curl in Donald's bill, the bulbous nose
of Barney Google, Captain Easy's squint --
Not all the poems in "Endpoint" deal with illness and mortality. A section of "light verse" includes the bouncy "Country Music," which opens:
Oh Monica, you Monica
In your little black beret,
You beguiled our saintly Billy
And led that creep astray.
He'd never seen thong underpants
Or met a Valley girl;
He was used to Southern women,
Like good old Minnie Pearl.
There are also some fine poems that remind us of how intently Updike looked at and thought about the ordinary world: "Tools" begins: "Tell me, how do the manufacturers of tools/turn a profit? I have used the same clawed hammer/for forty years."
In their last years, many artists cast aside all their usual flourishes, dismiss the circus animals and simply set down, as directly as possible, the realities and inevitabilities of old age. So John Updike has done in this moving book of poems. As he ruefully attests, "In the beginning, Culture does beguile us,/but Nature gets us in the end."
Dirda -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- writes each Thursday in Style.