Updike’s posthumously published collection “Endpoint And Other Poems” was the last he penned before he died and, certainly, his impending mortality was his main motif here. It is impossible to summarise the breadth of interesting themes on display as he mused on life, death, time, geography, America, war, air travel, pop music, doo-wop, friendship, books, art, history and love. His words seared themselves into my brain like cooling magma creeping slowly downhill.
Updike did not tackle his looming impermanence in the typical dolorous sense. He was more matter of fact about the whole matter, “I settle in, to that decade in which, I’m told, most people die”. He viewed death as naturally as “shedding skin as minutes drop from life”. Not that he was completely sanguine about the matter, “Age I must, but die I would rather not”. In “Lunar Eclipse”, he reminded me of Kinsella’s extraordinary “Mirror In February” as he reflected on the slow passing of time.
Inevitably, looking forward resulted in the opposite, as he recalled his youth, “How not to think of death? Its ghastly blank / lies underneath your dreams, that once gave rise / to horn-hard, conscienceless erections”.
He had a brilliant insight on the journey through the arc of a life, “Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life”.
War was not a terribly frequent topic, but I thought it significant. He had profound thoughts on it, “I think that love fuels war like gasoline, / and crying peace curdles the ear of doves”. Like death, war was a brutish inevitability, a ghastly method that we have always resorted to in order to resolve our disputes as a species.
This sense of it being an aberrant, yet historical human trait is teased out throughout. He recounted his younger days, listening to Blondie, as the “daily paper brought us headlined war”. Fast forward to 2006 and “Iraq continues like a curtainless bad play”. He visited Cambodia and observed how”life has returned to avenues Pol Pot / once emptied with insane decrees”.
He was at his most lyrical when describing the world around him, linking space and time, “Beyond the bay- where I have watched, these twenty years, dim ships ply the horizon, feeding oil to Boston”. I adore this image of ships feeding a people as they slowly arrive. Traders trading.
He pondered a visit to Ireland in 2008 and saw that “The Celtic tiger still has crooked teeth”.
“In the beginning, culture does beguile us, / but nature gets us in the end”. The root of his, our, inspiration: the world around us. The root of art.
His poem “Stolen” discussed the permanence of a piece of stolen art even after the artist had died. An idea within an idea, that art will live on regardless. It is just a question of who sees it to awaken the collective culture on the other side.
He loved his music and there were some fascinating takes on pop culture. In “Frankie Laine”, he described a scene in a diner “through the hormone laden haze / your slick voice, nasal yet operatic”. Art, location, memory.
In “TV”, he made a wonderful comparison between the relentless news cycle spewing out from our television sets to the water flowing out of a tap. We need it, but it can drown us. A perfect metaphor for our times.
Updike is never sententious, always observant and honest. After two readings, my favourite remains “Outliving One’s Father”, where he poignantly cogitated on the ultimate human vulnerability, writing about being “At his side, his shorter only offshoot, / I both sheltered and cowered…Now where / can I shelter, how can I hide, / how match his stride / through the years he never endured”.
Updike’s life was, as he wrote, “A life poured into words- apparent waste / intended to preserve the thing consumed / for who, in that unthinkable future / when I am dead, will read?”. He need not have worried on that score.