Updike’s posthumously published collection “Endpoint and other poems” was the last he penned and, certainly, his impending mortality is the key motif here. It is impossible to even summarise the breadth of interesting themes throughout. His musings on life, death, time, geography, America, war, air travel, pop music, doo wop, friendship, books, art, history, love are essential reading. His words sear themselves into the brain like cooling magma creeping slowly downhill from the Tamu Massif.
He does not tackle his looming impermanence in a typically dolorous sense. More, in a matter of fact way: “I settle in, to that decade in which, I’m told, most people die”. He views the whole matter as naturally as “shedding skin as minutes drop from life”. Not that he is completely sanguine about the matter: “Age I must, but die I would rather not”. Just something to get through.
In “Lunar Eclipse”, he reminds me of Kinsella’s extraordinary “Mirror in February” as he reflects on the slow passing of time.
Inevitably, looking forward results in the opposite too as he recalls 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 has a brilliant insight on the journey through the arc of life: “Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life”.
It is not a terribly frequent topic, but I thought it significant. He has profound thoughts on the matter: “I think that love fuels war like gasoline, / and crying peace curdles the ear of doves”. Like death, war is a brutish necessity, a ghastly method that we have always resorted to when resolving our disputes as a species. We have got to hope, and work towards building, a society in which we evolve into settling our disputes in a peaceful manner. Yet, Updike was charting his journey through life in America.
This sense of it being an aberrant, yet historical human trait is teased out throughout. He recounts 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 visits Cambodia and observes how “life has returned to avenues Pol Pot / once emptied with insane decrees”. He does not get political, just deliberates on the world he saw around him.
He is 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, life.
He ponders a visit to Ireland in 2008 and observed that: “The Celtic tiger still has crooked teeth”. Speaking as an Irish person, I cannot emphasis how prescient this was.
“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” discusses the permanence of a piece of stolen art even after the artist is dead. 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 are some fascinating takes on pop culture in here. In “Frankie Laine”, he describes a scene in a diner “through the hormone laden haze / your slick voice, nasal yet operatic”. Art, location, memory.
In “TV”, he makes 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 is “Outliving One’s Father”, where he poignantly cogitates on the ultimate human vulnerability. He writes 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.