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Does Updike's Last Verse Hit Its Mortal Mark? Plainly.

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 23, 2009

ENDPOINT

And Other Poems

This Story

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?


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