On 13 December 2008, just 45 days before his death, fearful that his recently diagnosed lung cancer had metastasized, John Updike bid a poetic farewell to the tiny Pennsylvania town that had nurtured him and provided a lifetime of literary substance.
The thank-you to Shillington he wrote that day, “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth,” reveals the heartbreakingly meditative essence of Endpoint the recently published posthumous poetry collection that was, as far as we know, the conclusion to Updike’s spectacularly prolific career.
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. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.
That last line encapsulated Updike’s life of letters as well as anything he or his critics ever wrote. With a nearly unparalleled facility for language and a piercing eye, he ennobled the humble landscape of what, despite all his honors and success, was a simple life—the small-town boy, the suburban father and husband, the homebound artist who chose grit over glitz.
In much of Endpoint, in the reflections on existence and its end, as well as in the light verse that follows, we get more of those brilliant Updikean takes on the mundane—birthdays and birds, currency and cacti, baseball and golf, even two of young Updike’s early favorites, Frankie Laine and Doris Day. Only in its 20 sonnets does his gaze fall upon poetry’s more classical grist—Helen of Troy, a concert at Sainte-Chapelle, exotic Cambodia and India—and they, frankly, make up its least appealing segment.
Updike, whose first book, 1958’s The Carpentered Hen, also was a collection of poems, seemed to see poetry as a literary change-up, an unwinding from the daily churn of fiction.
While his light verse was frequently charming and his longer poems thought-provoking and crafty, one always sensed that his poetry was more pastime than profession.
But because of the author’s end-of-life awareness, Endpoint is different. The best of its poems are infused with a heft lacking in Updike’s earlier work.
The sequence of surprisingly straightforward—and apparently chronological—poems that open Endpoint, and also give it its title, become a poignantly powerful diary. They offer a glimpse inside the head and soul of Updike as, at first in a series of annual birthday poems, he moves from a cynical dismay about aging (“Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”) to a gradual acceptance of death (“I had not hoped to find, in this bright place, so solvent a peace”).
In “3/18/03”, a title that matched his 71st birthday, Updike appears overtaken by foreboding as he gazes through the window of his Massachusetts home.
Yet something is awry, no doubt of it.
Out on the Bay, a strange steel spider crawls
among our islands glaring bright at night.
Time was when this white house, with its broad view,
wore blackout shades and watched the iron sea
for submarines. A child then now is old.
Two years later, again on his birthday, he was still obsessed with doubts about his future and his work. He began “The Author Observes His Birthday, 2005” with this hard-bitten self-analysis:
A life poured into words — apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
. . . I opted for a bloodless universe
of inked imaginings.
As the years passed, his unwelcome image in a mirror, the fact that he had outlived his father, and a persistent cough all combined to inflate his growing dread. Ultimately, as in so much of his work, his mind and artistic sensibilities were soothed by the consistency of a faith that, despite a lifetime of questioning, survived his 76 years.
In “Fine Points”, written on 22 December and perhaps his final creative words, Updike wondered why he went to Sunday school when he didn’t believe any of what was taught. He reflected on the way Christians mocked the “crabbed rites” of Jews but ultimately absorbed them.
We mocked but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
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.
On the haunting jacket photo, Updike is seen pausing on a tree-shaded New England path. A hand in his pocket, a half-smile on his face, he is gazing back at his readers one final time, pausing for a wistful goodbye, lamenting, as in “Spirit of ‘76”, the end of that road he had chosen.
Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.