Updike’s Grand and Tantalizing Final Act

John Updike passed away in 2009.By J.P. Harrington

A wrinkled, weathered face staring off into the distance – waiting for the inevitable end to approach across a sea of memories. That is the image that John Updike’s most recent posthumous collection of poems conjures within the mind of the reader. Endpoint and Other Poems is a Janus-faced work, continually looking back to the sunrise and forwards to the sunset at the same time. In this web of the past and the future, Updike ensnares himself – and his country.

The book begins, fittingly at the end. Endpoint is a mini-collection of poems including a series written by the author on several of his own birthdays. These poems bemoan the death of American culture, the death of reading and the death that he calmly awaits.   

Technology appears as a central part of this new world, so far from that of his youth.  Yet, Updike displays a poet’s distrust of electronics. He muses about how his watch battery will last for ten years, ticking on even when his own flesh decays in the grave. In another poem, entitled “Birthday Shopping,” Updike and his wife wander through Best Buy surrounded by strange displays of flashing lights: “The geeks in matching shirts/talked gigabytes to girls with blue tattoos/and nostril studs, and guys with ropey arms/packed pixel-rich home-entertainment screens.” Alone in a brave new world of ever-evolving mind-rotting entertainment technology, Updike and his wife feel lost in the plastic environment. In the middle of this frighteningly Huxleyan vision of the now omnipresent big-box store, Updike comes across a young Chinese girl, abandoned by her adoptive mother to stare at a television screen. The screen becomes her newest parent in Updike’s mind, absorbing the “transfixed little pixie here/among the pixels, stiller than if asleep.” Updike points out that technology has slowly transformed from a mere tool to the defining part of our culture. He directly contrasts modern technology with the invention of the printing press that led to the democratization of knowledge and eventually, freedom of thought. 

Later, Updike reveals his contempt for the new techno-culture in a sardonic poem entitled “The City Outside,” written from his hospital bed in Boston. He scoffs “Strontium 90-is that a so-called/heavy element? I’ve been injected,/and yet the same imbecilic stuff-/the babble on TV, newspaper fluff,/the drone of magazines, banality’s/kind banter…” On the one hand, science saves his life, but on the other it has made life not worth living. 

At this point, this end, however, Updike does not concern himself only with the culture that is dying around him, but instead depicts the approach of death within him.  Surrounded by dying friends, acquaintances and family members, he grows alternately afraid and angry. On one page he damns age, writing about retirees’ pale withered skin sizzling in the harsh light of the sun, but on the next, he quietly describes the panic he felt when he forgot how to pump gas, gently and sadly questioning: “What’s up? What’s left of/me?” Emotions about death bubble under the surface of each understated poem where a single word tinged with regret can dominate an entire line.  Even those poems written on his birthday emit waves of sadness. The question that Updike leaves us with at the end of this first part of the collection is not how to think of death, but “how not to think of death?”

Yet, the supposedly lighter poems that follow are also caught between the past and the future, the beginning and the end. Old diners filled with teenagers drinking Coca-Cola and milkshakes appear briefly before fading to visions of the Appalachian Mountains collapsing into the Atlantic Ocean. In a poem called simply “Waco,” televisions in a brand new Hilton hotel “befuddle breakfast eaters with a feast/of twitching imagery, the news gone mad” only a few miles away from the now empty and quiet land where the Branch Davidians lived and died. History of pain pops up throughout the poems, as if Updike cannot see the difference between what happened and what will happen. Perhaps, he is right, perhaps there is none. His sonnets do not deal with women or love, but rather with sites of historical pain and with the decay of his own body. 

Honest to a point, Updike holds no punches when it comes to himself. An acidic wit pervades the darkly comic “Colonoscopy” and he praises his left hand for its service in past episodes of self-gratification. 

Yet, it is his descriptions of Irish civil war, Cambodian genocides and Soviet starvation that linger in the mind. Sadly, it seems that Updike alone remembers the pain while the youngest generation has forgotten the hardships. In “St. Petersburg,” he writes of “Lean girls/in tall and pricey boots now stalk soft prey/where their grandmothers starved on hard Seige-bread.”

Updike has produced a brilliant and incisive collection of heart-wrenching poems. While they certainly are far from uplifting, they serve as a warning – that death and pain approach us. No one is safe. You can’t help but feel uneasy when Updike juxtaposes the following phrase next to descriptions of the intense suffering of the Irish, the Cambodians, and the Russians: “What have we done/to earn eternal youth? Nothing so great -/been born American, put in our time.”  Updike points out the amazing luck of those born American, but at the same time the possibility for that luck to change. As a prophet of doom, he certainly prefers to focus on the individual, on the darkness that sits waiting for us all, but occasionally he ventures to speak of America’s future.

At the end of the collection, one is only left wishing – wishing that Updike had had a few more years and that this would not be one of the last of his works. A great mind has been lost – all that is left are these words on frail pages. His incisive social commentary will be missed along with his unique viewpoint. It is not difficult to find someone standing at the end of his life looking back, but to find someone who sees the past and future as inseparable is a trying task indeed. His final poems are worth the read – if only so that you attempt to share his unique way of looking at the world. Perhaps this attitude is best seen in what he wrote on his 69th birthday: 

“Birthday, death day–what day is not both?”