April 21, 2013

NPM 2013 - U is for Updike

John Updike is more renowned for his novels, short stories, and essays and while his poetry may not stand the test of time and he won't be heralded as a premier poet of the 20th century, I remember sitting outside Boston Public Library one sunny Fall day in 2009 and reading his last (posthumously published) book of poems, EndPoint & Other Poems, in one sitting. Overall though, I should admit that while I am a big fan of his short stories, I have read just a couple of his novels (the famed Rabbit series) and just one book of poems.

Like Clive James wrote about his poetry in the New York Times shortly after his death:
John Updike was always so careful not to make high claims for himself as a poet that he gave his more owlish critics the opportunity to say he wasn’t a poet at all. They should have looked harder. Most of the poems he ever published in book form counted as light verse, but his light verse was dauntingly accomplished. Very few recognized poets could handle the formal element that well, and occasionally there was a serious poem with all the linguistic vigor of the prose that had made his novels compulsory reading.

Here then are a few of his poems.


Dog's Death
by John Updike

She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, "Good dog! Good dog!"

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest's bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet's, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog.


by John Updike

The shadows have their seasons, too.
The feathery web the budding maples
cast down upon the sullen lawn

bears but a faint relation to
high summer's umbrageous weight
and tunnellike continuum-

black leached from green, deep pools
wherein a globe of gnats revolves
as airy as an astrolabe.

The thinning shade of autumn is
an inherited Oriental,
red worn to pink, nap worn to thread.

Shadows on snow look blue. The skier,
exultant at the summit, sees his poles
elongate toward the valley: thus

each blade of grass projects another
opposite the sun, and in marshes
the mesh is infinite,

as the winged eclipse an eagle in flight
drags across the desert floor
is infinitesimal.

And shadows on water!-
the beech bough bent to the speckled lake
where silt motes flicker gold,

or the steel dock underslung
with a submarine that trembles,
its ladder stiffened by air.

And loveliest, because least looked-for,
gray on gray, the stripes
the pearl-white winter sun

hung low beneath the leafless wood
draws out from trunk to trunk across the road
like a stairway that does not rise.


I remember this poem scared me (Old age is not fun!) and at the same time made me smile. 

by John Updike

Talk about intimacy! I'd almost rather not.
The day before, a tussle with nausea
(DRINK ME: a liter of sickly-sweet liquid)
and diarrhea, so as to present oneself
pristine as a bride to the groom with his tools,
his probe and tiny TV camera
and honeyed words. He has a tan,
just back from a deserved vacation
from his accustomed nether regions.

Begowned, recumbent on one's side,
one views through uprolled eyes the screen whereon
one's big intestine snakes sedately by,
its segments marked by tidy annular
construction-seams as in a prefab tunnel
slapped up by the mayor's son-in-law.
A sudden wash of sparkling liquid shines
in the inserted light, and hairpin turns
loom far ahead and soon are vaulted past
impalpably; we float, we fall, we veer
in these soft, pliant passages spelunked
by everything one eats.

Then all goes dark,
as God intended it whenever He
sealed shut in Adam's abdomen
life's slimy, twisting, smelly miracle.
The bridegroom's voice, below the edge of sight
like buried treasure, announces,
"Perfect. Not a polyp. See you in
five years." Five years? The funhouse may have folded.

I'll leave you with this excerpt from the long poem, Endpoint

Raw days, though spring has been declared.
I settle in, to that decade in which,
I’m told, most people die. Then, flying south,
I wonder why houses in their patterned crowds
look white, whatever their earthbound colors,
from the air. Golf courses, nameless rivers.
The naked Connecticut woods hold veins of madder
like the green veins of the sea.

The pilot takes us down Manhattan’s spine—
the projects, Riverside cathedral, Midtown
bristling up like some coarse porcupine.
We seem too low, my palms begin to sweat.
The worst can happen, we know it from the news.
Age I must, but die I would rather not. 
A few more of his poems can be read at this website and also at the Poetry Foundation website.

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