John Updike, Endpoint and Other Poems

These are not John Updike’s best poems, but they are John Updike’s last poems.

Published after his death, they give us the picture of a man who, despite all his literary success and earthly fame, was a victim in the end, as we all are, of the reign of death. These poems are an especially honest, sometimes abrasively honest, look at death in prospect and life in retrospect from the point of view of a man whose breath was nearly gone.

Updike writes of what it means for him to realize that at his death no one would say, “Oh what a shame! So young, so full of promise.” He writes of being given a watch with a ten-year guarantee on its battery, and what it means to know: “Ten years! It will tick in my coffin while my bones continue to deteriorate.”

And he writes, perhaps most poignantly, about what it means to live past the age at which his father died. “Now where can I shelter, where can I hide, how match his stride through years he never endured?”

These poems had to be read a little at a time. They seemed awkward to read, almost as though one were watching one’s previously strong, vital grandfather having his mouth wiped by nurses through a meal.

There are poems about other things than death, of course: baseball and Saint Petersburg, and so forth. But death is in view, at forefront or sideview, through them all.

Here is explicit all the implicit fear of the Reaper in Updike’s previous fiction and poetry and essays, minus the animalistic sex instinct and the wry New England humor.

Reading aloud the poems of Updike, I could hardly stand to hear myself repeat the words. They sound like the words of Esau who, with tears, is seeking repentance, and just can’t find it. This collection made me sad for a great literary man, but joyful for the grace that uproots tombs.

Updike was a genius at observing the ways of fallen humans. I’d recommend these poems perhaps especially to young pastors who haven’t yet seen what it looks like to see a man die. The rawness of these thoughts and emotions can help such a preacher see the gulf over which he stands, preaching the gospel of repentance, faith, and newness of life.

Photo courtesy of worldcat.org.