Monday, April 18, 2011

Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike

I pulled the book that was obviously on the wrong shelf, Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike. The call number on the spine label was in error. Updike was an American, not British author. He may have spoken the same English language as Keats and Shelley, but we believe in geographically-correct nationalism in our Dewey-committed library. I would take the book down to the technical process department (two people in our small library) and get the catalog corrected and a new label made.

But I decided to look at the book first. It was National Poetry Month, and I had not read any poems yet this year. I had not really cared for Updike's novels, but I really am not a contemporary novel reader, so it may have been more my taste instead of his writing that made me stop after five pages last time I tried. I think that I enjoyed his short stories long ago.

I started the title poem "Endpoint" and was immediately hooked. The poem is Updike realizing that he is nearly out of time and saying a long goodbye. He describes how his body is failing even as we sees the beauty around him in the New England woods, Atlantic shores, and Tucson mountains. Written in short bursts, some on his birthdays, starting in March 2002, he reflects on his life and work.
A thousand dollars then meant we could eat
for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes.
My life my life with children, was a sluice
that channeled running water to my pan;
by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I
at end of day might find a fleck of gold.

He remembers events and people, while seeing change. He goes to Best Buy to get a new laptop and struggles to get oleanders to grow in the thin desert soil. Eventually he is admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital.
I lived in Boston once, a year or two,
in furtive semi-bachelorhood. I parked
a Karmann Ghia in Back Bay's shady spots
but I was lighter then, and lived as if
within forever. Now I've turned so heavy
I sink through twenty floors to hit the street.

The last verses are from December 22, 2008. Updike died January 27, 2009.

The other poems take on a variety of topics, some of which interest me, too - the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum still not found, the renewed appreciation of Doo-Wop, the difficulty of playing the seemingly lazy game of baseball, and travel to numerous cities. Often witty and nostalgic, the poems are clear and need no decoding. I read a handful at a time.

Funny how being out of place made this a book worth considering, like birds storm blown to distant continents.

Updike, John. Endpoint and Other Poems. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 9780307272867.

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