By Harvey Freedenberg
by John Updike, (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 97 pages)
Although John Updike was 76 years old when he died in January 2009, his passing still came as a shock. Perhaps it was because he was productive for more than half a century and up to the time of his death. He’s best known for his novels and short stories, most prominent among them the quartet of “Rabbit” novels set in Brewer, a proxy for Reading, Pa., near the town of Shillington where Updike grew up.
But along with that flood of fiction, he was an accomplished poet. Endpoint and Other Poems is the last of his eight poetry collections, assembled in the few weeks before his death and dedicated to his wife, Martha, “who asked for one more book.” It’s full of the intelligence, verbal felicity and wit that were the hallmarks of Updike’s work.
The work from which the collection takes its name is actually a grouping of 17 poems that begin by following Updike’s birthdays as he ends his seventh decade: The years “pile up if we manage not to die, / glass dollars in the bank, dry pages on / the shelf,” he writes.
“Age I must, but die I would rather not.” From there, we follow him across his final years, from winters in Arizona, where “At city limits, numb saguaros hail / with lifted arms the guzzling summer rush,” to reflections on this mother’s thwarted dreams of a writing career: “My mother knew non-publication’s shame, / obscurity’s abyss, where blind hands flog / typewriter keys in hope of raising up / the magic combination that will sell.”
When cancer overtook him in late 2008, Updike was clear-eyed about his diagnosis and the course of his disease.
In “Oblong Ghosts 11/6/08,” he writes of “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,” but that same poem concludes with a hopeful nod to the election of Barack Obama earlier in that terrible week, a fond recollection of a snowy childhood Christmas in Shillington and “the scent of fresh-cut evergreens.”
Recalling friends and family who faced death before him, he half-apologizes: “I brushed them off, / these valorous, in my unseemly haste / of greedy living, and now must learn from them.” And of a biopsy whose grim “results came casually through” only a few weeks before his death he confesses, “I had not hoped / to find, in this bright place, so solvent a peace.”
Updike devotes several poems to lifelong passions like baseball (his 1960 New Yorker piece, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” on Ted Williams’ final game, is a classic piece of baseball writing), and 1950s pop music, admiring “these old doo-wop stars you see / in purple tuxedos with mauve lapels” and wondering “how did they do it, do it still, still do?”
There’s even a tongue-in-cheek tribute to an octogenarian Doris Day: “I still know you’re sexy, / and not just in reruns or on old 45 rpms.”
A group of sonnets chronicles his travels to places like Ireland after the collapse of a Celtic Tiger that “still has crooked teeth” and St. Petersburg, Russia, where, reflecting on the suffering of Leningrad in World War II, he remarks, “Lean girls / in tall and pricey boots now stalk soft prey / where their grandmothers starved on hard Seige-bread.”
Awaiting a flight to Florida, he gazes ruefully at the elderly people who sit with him in the waiting lounge: “Now, aged, average, dullish, lame, and halt, / we claim our due, our fun doom in the sun.”
Despite the somber theme of this collection, Updike’s acknowledged talent for light verse remains undiminished, and it shines in the 10 poems that conclude the book. At the end of the Clinton impeachment trial, he reflected on the role of Monica Lewinsky, in a poem entitled “Country Music”: “You were our Bill’s Delilah / Until Acquittal Day; / You’re his-tor-y now, Monica, / In your little black beret.” And commenting ironically on the prospect of his own passing, in a poem entitled “Requiem,” he writes: “It came to me the other day: / Were I to die, no one would say, / ‘Oh, what a shame! So young, so full / Of promise depths unplumbable.”
“A life poured into words – apparent waste / intended to preserve the thing consumed,” Updike wrote in 2005, confessing how he had “opted for a bloodless universe of inked imaginings.” No one who reads this valedictory work, or any of his brilliant prose, would wish he had made any other choice.