Saturday, April 11, 2009

Updike's ENDPOINT: Light at Sunset

(Reflections upon John Updike's final poem sequence ENDPOINT. He died in January of this year.)

Calling himself "a literary Mr. Sunshine" in a poem collected in AMERICANA (2001) (39), John Updike turned clarifying light on any subject of his essays, stories, poems and reviews. The week that he died, NPR's Terry Gross spoke at unprecedented length about her appreciation for his art as a writer, and for this quality of intelligent appreciation that animated his interviews with her. Then we heard it, how he started each response to her questions with insights that buttressed whatever she had said, before he gently turned away to disagree.

In his writing, Updike never shied from the darkest and foulest parts (however often I wished he had), but he always highlighted "whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is just" in the subject at hand.

Nine years after AMERICANA, he turns that same light on his own aging and death in ENDPOINT AND OTHER POEMS. The title piece is a set of poems aligned with verses that he composed on his last birthdays. Naturally, these touch on themes of self-evaluation of his own legacy.

He repeats the image of his past lying under water, "at bottom." Pained by neuralgia, mind "vacant" from birthday chatter, he thinks "The boy I was no longer smiles / a greeting from the bottom of the well, / blue sky behind him from a story book" (3). For Updike, "Roosevelt's sunk Depression world" had become "Atlantis at the bottom of a life, / descried through sliding thicknesses of time" (17). He returns once again to scenes familiar from non-fiction and from their appearances (slightly altered) in numerous short stories -- the hapless school - teacher father, the bitterly disappointed mother, the afternoons with the silent grandparents and refuge in radio and comics. He admits, "I've written these before, these modest facts, / but their meaning has no bottom in my mind" (27).

His own career as a writer seems to bring him modest satisfaction. He remembers pride, "to see my halt words strut in type," and more, "to have my spines / line up upon the shelf, one more each year, / however out of kilter ran my life!" (10). The wives he wronged and the children for whom he wrote, provided material for that writing: "I drank up women's tears and spat them out / as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital." He writes an ode of appreciation to his own right hand, that old "five - fingered beast of burden, dappled with / some psoriatic spots I used to hate." But ugly as it is, it served to "carve from language beauty, that beauty which / lifts free of flesh to find itself in print" (12). He thanks words themselves that "formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts" (19).

Yet, in some of the more striking passages, Updike seems resigned to a future without him and without his work, "For who, in that unthinkable future / when I am dead, will read?" (8) He asserts, "The printed page / was just a half-millennium's brief wonder" to awaken the Medieval "world long dulled by plagues and plainsong." Updike explains how "the Bible freed / spelled trouble," smashing the stained glass and leaving "clear windows" to see "that self which tribal ways suppressed, and whose articulation asked a world of books." In these witty few lines, Updike has sketched out everything from the Reformation to 20th century ideologies.
Then he is nonplussed by an eerie scene in an electronics store: he comes upon a little girl, separated from mother, staring at images on a hi-def plasma screen, "her face as close and rapt as at an udder / motionlessly drinking something in" (17) from what he elsewhere scorns as the "infotainment web" (59). He has glimpsed the future, and the belles - lettres aren't in it.

Then, after a career of writing about characters who try to avoid death - the adolescent boy's horror at the beauty of feathers from a pigeon he shot, the ex-basketball star's running away from responsibility, the couples who enmesh themselves in a cocoon of sexual relations to escape meaninglessness - Updike faces the real thing. The sequence of poems gathers emotional heft in the manner of a novel. In "Hospital 11/23 - 27 / 08" he tells himself "The world is blanketed by foregone deaths, / small beads of ego, bright with appetite," who comprise "a jagged coral shelf / unseen beneath the black unheeding waves." But when his grandchildren visit, and he is "politely quizzing them / on their events and prospects," he asks himself if he must "uphold the social lie / that binds us all together in blind faith / that nothing ends, not youth nor age nor strength." His answer: "My tongue / says yes; within, I lamely drown" (23).

When the death sentence comes, he sets it simply, at the end of a sonnet: "The gland, biopsied, showed metastasis." He rhymes it with "peace" (29).

Finally, Updike performs for the last time a trick that has made him a marvel to me during these past twenty-three years of enjoying him (I started with ROGER'S VERSION). That is, he rounds his work out with a framing reference. How often he has done that before, in amazing ways, as if he'd planned it all along. Thirty years apart, Rabbit plays basketball with teenaged boys. Though the flustered young Mr. Maples forgot to kiss his bride in a short story published in the early 1950s, he finds an appropriate way to complete the civil ceremony of their divorce in a story written decades later. Nearly forty years after publishing MIDPOINT, Updike now publishes ENDPOINT. And this sequence of poems, written years apart, begun in health and ending in a hospital bed, begins and ends with verses that finish with the same thought:

Nature is never bored, and we whose lives
are linearly pinned to these aloof
self-fascinated cycles [of seasons] can't complain,
though aches and pains and even dreams a - crawl
with wood lice of decay give pause to praise . . . (5)

...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. (29)

It's the Saturday before Easter, recalling Updike's much earlier poem, "Seven Stanzas at Easter," and it seems apropos.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

[See an index of my other reflections on Updike's work at my Updike page..]

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