By John Updike
Knopf, 112 pages
In 1968, at the age of thirty-six, John Updike penned "Midpoint," a playful but sometimes tiresome poem inspired by pointillism. Among the joys he inflicts on readers is a section on elements and atoms in rhymed verse, a section of low-res photographs from Updike's life, and a section on the loves of his life—replete with an array of fonts, arrows, and, of course, a typographic diagram of a naked woman. It is the poem of a young man in his prime, grappling with life. Death is only in the periphery: "Our Guilt inheres in sheer Existing, so/ Forgive yourself your death, and freely flow."
Much of Updike’s work exudes that cushy bourgeois existence which embraces sensuality while remaining oblivious to suffering, save for the self-inflicted kind of pain that comes from too much alcohol, touch football games, and adultery. He himself wondered if he had suffered enough. It is a foolish question, but in attempting to answer it in his memoir, Self-Consciousness, he decides that his psoriasis (which was severe enough to keep him from the draft), an intermittent tendency to stutter, and the occasional choking spell sufficed. In the context of some of the other great writers of the twentieth century, especially those revered Eastern-European poets, Updike’s mutinous skin and the medicinal trips to the Caribbean it necessitated seem trifling.
However, as Updike aged, his writing shifted. Updike's critic, William Pritchard, noted, "What distinguishes the retrospective note in Updike's poems, memoirs, and short fiction from the late 1980s and beyond is the sense that the ‘making’ of a life has indeed been accomplished." He began to look to the decline that lay ahead: “Between now and the grave lies a long slide of forestallment, a slew of dutiful, dutifully paid-for maintenance routines in which dermatological makeshift joins periodontal work and prostate examinations on the crowded appointment calendar of dwindling days.” His short stories begin to focus more on death, and he published Rabbit at Rest, the last of his quartet of Rabbit novels, in which the hero, Rabbit Angstrom, dies. He also released a memoir and his Collected Poems. In a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, Updike at one point responded, "Well, why would you collect your poems unless you were getting ready to go on a journey." Shortly after his death in January of 2009, Endpoint, a poetic catalog of his final seven years and a sad but brilliant coda to an extraordinary life, was published.
Updike is predominantly a writer of prose, and with the exception of Nabokov, it might be said that no twentieth century prose writer had as much control over the English language. As a poet, Updike is often ignored. He once dubbed his poems his "oeuvre's beloved waifs." It is easy to lapse into the errant judgment that he is not a serious poet but a peddler in light or comic verse. This is, after all, the man who once wrote a poem praising a particularly satisfactory shit he took ("The Beautiful Bowel Movement"). Nor does he fit very well into the landscape of contemporary poetry; he has a penchant for formalism, for meter and rhyme schemes. At times his verse feels outmoded and archaic. But as Updike aged he tried to embrace a freer form of poetry: "I began as a 'rhymester,' a more or less expert juggler of metrics and rhyme, and as I have aged I have less and less depended upon these devices." The poem "Endpoint" is the final period in the long and winding masterpiece of Updike's career, a series of beautifully written poetic vignettes, all the work of a mature author who has nothing to prove.
Unlike "Midpoint," in which Updike considers "foretastes of death" a comfort of adulthood, "Endpoint," the lengthy title poem of the volume, reveals an aging Updike trying to delay the inevitable death, the approach of which he is all too aware. The first of the sections was written in early 2002, when he turned seventy and settled into "that decade in which,/ I'm told, most people die."
"Endpoint" is broken up into several sections, which initially take the form of occasional poems, written on or around Updike's birthdays. They are an "inconclusive ode to age," and the author, his lungs not yet engulfed by the cancer that would kill him, dwells more on landscapes and nature, which
...is never bored, and we whose lives
are linearly pinned to these 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?
Even as the poem progresses and death draws nearer, it is firmly rooted in the physical. Several of the sections note the location in which Updike wrote them—Beverly Farms, Massachusetts; Tucson, Arizona; and later, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
Place has always factored heavily into Updike's work. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Reading, a mid-size manufacturing town. At thirteen he moved to a farm outside of town where, an only child, he lived with his parents and his grandparents. Though he would move away from Shillington—to Harvard, Oxford, New York, and finally to the North shore of Massachusetts—it remained the bedrock of his literary imagination. He writes in his memoir, "The first mystery that confronts us is 'Why me?' The next is, 'Why here?' Shillington was my here." Updike returns to Shillington throughout the poem, which was "all a writer needs, / all there in Shillington."
Updike reflects back on his life frequently in "Endpoint," oscillating between the present and the past as he thinks about those who have died before him: his classmates ("To think of you brings tears less caustic than those the thought of death brings.”), his grandparents, and his parents. Updike's father was a high school teacher, and a weak man whose name often drew a laugh among Updike's classmates and around the town. In "Outliving One's Father," one of the collection's later poems, he wonders how he can make it through years that his father never lived to see. His mother, a failed writer who "knew non-publication's shame," had great aspirations for her son and pushed him into writing. She "tried, tip-tap, to stretch her Remington/ across the gap of space and time, and failed. / I took off from her failure."
Each birthday is a mile marker on the road towards death that will reunite Updike with his mother and father: "Age I must, but die I would rather not." On the occasion of his seventy-sixth birthday, he asks, "How not to think of death?" when he can "see clear through to the ultimate page, / the silence I dared break for my small time." But there is a surprisingly vitality to the poem, and the poet momentarily forgets death to delight in life. Not ten lines later he writes comically of his birthday dinner with his wife, where she points out he doesn't know how to use a finger bowl. Or the occasion of his birthday in 2003:
this morning adds a name to those I share
the date with: Wilson Pickett, Brad Dourif,
F.W. de Clerk, Vanessa Williams,
my pal George Plimpton, plus Hawaiian statehood.
The name is Queen Latifah, whom I've seen
in several recent movie hits. Sweet smile.
It is difficult to imagine the aging literary icon in the theater watching Beauty Shop, yet Updike's project was the affirmation of the ordinary life, the celebration of the stodgy suburban banality that had become middle-class America. In "Birthday Shopping, 2007," one of the sections of "Endpoint," he details with a child-like sense of wonder the spectacle of Best Buy, where he and his wife have gone to buy a backup computer:
Brave world! The geeks in matching shirts
talked gigabytes to girls with blue tattoos
and nostril studs, and guys with ropey arms
packed pixel-rich home-entertainment screens.
High-def is in.
Updike's writing was also an effort to redeem his own life, to lift himself from the heaviness of existence through the creation of art—"labors meant / to carve from language beauty, that beauty which / lifts free of flesh to find itself in print"—an act which he once said bordered on blasphemy. As he writes in "Midpoint," "I am a paper bag / I am trying to punch my way out of." It was also an effort to prolong life through the printed word. He wrote in his memoir, "For many men, work is the effective religion, a ritual occupation and inflexible orientation which permits them to imagine that the problem of their personal death has been solved." Updike was a member of that group of men, and he threw himself into his work: "To be in print was to be saved. And this moment, a day where I have produced nothing printable, when I have not gotten any words out, is a day lost and damned as I feel it." This mentality resulted in an enormous body of work. He wrote 862 pieces for the New Yorker alone. The eminent critic James Wood once remarked, "It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book." But his prolific output was not appreciated by everyone. David Foster Wallace, in a piece published in the New York Observer under the headline, "Twilight of the Phallocrats," complained, "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?" Then, at the end of his life, when writing seems impotent in the face of death, Updike wonders at the value of his life's work: "A life poured into words—apparent waste/ intended to preserve the thing consumed."
The time between poems (though not all are dated) diminishes as the collection continues, the author trying to rapidly catalog his dwindling experience. He forgets where the gas cap is and the keyboard combination to type an accent. Then, he is in the hospital, fighting pneumonia, then cancer—cloistered from the world outside. He asks, after being diagnosed with pneumonia, "Is this an end? / I hang, half-healthy, here, and wait to see." Surely he wondered whether he would live to see the publication of the poem he was writing. There is the battery of medical tests, the radiation ("Strontium 90—-is that a so-called / heavy element?"), and the visits from relatives:
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,
as in a motion picture which, once seen,
can be rebought on DVD? My tongue
says yes; within, I lamely drown.
Here, Updike invites comparison to Milosz in his tone; one cannot finish the poem and still deny that Updike had experienced and understood suffering.
"Needle Biopsy 12/22/08" begins comically enough as Updike is given Valium—"All praise be Valium in Jesus name"—which takes him "up a happy cul de sac," and he experiences peace: "All would be well, I felt, all manner of thing." It ends with the biopsy results. The cancer had spread. It is a movie in which we know the sad ending, know that we will be heartbroken, but we watch anyway.
The last of the poem's sections, "Finepoint," opens with the question, "Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,/ and not believe a bit of what was taught?"—a question he answers with the twenty-third psalm:
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely—magnificent, that “surely”—
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever.
He both affirms the life has lived and nods to eternity. Updike died one month later in the care of a hospice in Danvers, Massachusetts.
The remainder of Endpoint is composed of three more sections: “Other Poems,” “Sonnets,” and “Light and Personal.” The subject and the style of the poems varies, and many of them are light-hearted. Writing in Scots English, Updike flexes his considerable poetic muscle in “To a Well-Connected Mouse,” a play on the Robert Burns poem, “To a Louse.” There is a sonnet meditating on the “shit within” Helen of Troy (“Fair Helen”), an ode to the old Doo-Wop singers (“Doo-Wop”), and a poem which imagines what it would be like to be a stolen Rembrandt. Many of the poems invoke the theme of place. The majority of the sonnets are focused on places Updike traveled to, mostly in Europe and Southeast Asia. Though the default for such poems is voyeurism , the sonnets display an incisiveness that refuses to be bewitched by foreign lands. But just like “Endpoint,” the final poems collectively point to the looming specter of death.
Updike writes elegies for the golfer Payne Stewart (“Elegy for a Real Golfer”) and the singer of his boyhood, Frankie Laine (“Frankie Laine”). “To My Hurting Left Hand,” an address to his arthritic left hand—a “Cain demanding, as less-favored child, attention long withheld” —reveals the frustration of physical deterioration: “In this short time/ remaining to us, help me clap, and pray,/ and hold fast. Pained, I still can’t do without you.” In other poems, as he watches his computer die or finds a dead bird in his deer netting, it is clear that Updike is thinking about suffering and death. Even the ironic poems, for which Updike is so well-known, gesture at the dreary future. In “Colonoscopy,” a sardonic poem describing one of the joys of aging, the doctor tells the author he will see him in five years. Updike’s response, “Five years? The funhouse may have folded.”
In one of Endpoint’s final poems, “Requiem,” published in The New York Times the day after his death, Updike worries that no one will notice his death: “The wide response will be, I know, / “I thought he died a while ago.” If only he could have seen the outpouring of tributes in the days and months after his death.
Updike's work, as a project, is to affirm the ordinary life. The point though, is to praise life. Fittingly, Endpoint closes with the epistolary love poem to his wife, Martha, "For Martha, On Her Birthday, After Her Cataract Operation." The closing lines of Updike's oeuvre:
O Martha mine
Come count your candles: sixty-nine
—No more, no less—alight upon
A cake of love from your own