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Monday, May 25, 2009

Splendid to the End

John Updike’s final poems

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The number seven is said to be lucky, and it certainly is for the many fans of the recently deceased John Updike, who, in his final seven years, honed Endpointand Other Poems (Knopf). Best known for some 60 books (ranging from poetry to novels to short stories to criticism), his first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen, was published in 1958 when I was 22 years old and beginning my journey.

And though he was splendid to the end, Updike maintained an air of being an oft-confused white American male caught in a stampede toward success: the Ivy League college (his was Harvard), the sprawling suburban manse, the perfect martini, the relentless birthdays, screwed-up marriages, one-night stands and nasty divorces. His work is a diary of earthly wandering and wondering. In this elegant adieu, he leaves not a trace of bitterness.

There he stands on the cover of Endpoint, enshrined in a black-and-white photograph. He glances over his shoulder at the reader, pausing on the forested path leading to… where? Far be it from Updike to dictate (though he often speculated) what, if anything, waits beyond. Perhaps we end up on Mars, and he imagines so in a pair of odes to his favorite planet.

The poems are arranged in three sections, with the acceptance of his coming demise chronicled in the opening pages. He seems to want to get the grim stuff (the sweaty terror of death) out of the way and move on to Doris Day in 1945. There's humor here as well, as he recalls doo-wop tunes, baseball, golf, travels abroad, trees, television and, lest we forget, Monica Lewinsky (in "Country Music, 1999," she in a velvet beret leads our "saintly Billy" astray).