Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 112 pp)

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. He was the father of four children and the author of more than sixty books, including novels and collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His books won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Howells Medal, among other honors. He died in January 2009.

Would You Rather

If you had your choice between a quick, painless death and a long, drawn out, painful death. Which would you choose?

For me, there’s no easy answer. On one side, a quick death allows for an elimination of pain. Let’s be honest; pain is no fun.

John Updike by Alex Katz

But with a quick, painless death, you don’t have a chance to say goodbye. You don’t have a chance to finish the last tasks on your bucket list, to say goodbye to those closest to you.

Nobody wants to face death; I can think of nothing more unpleasant. Yet there’s something poetic about the opportunity to say goodbye, to right your wrongs, and to come to grips with the end of life.

Interestingly, the theme of facing inevitable death is the central refrain of John Updike’s final collection of poetry, Endpoint and Other Poems.

In Consideration of the End

Through beautiful lyricism, Updike opens the window to his pallid decline.

The principle poem in the collection is “Endpoint”. An agglomeration of poems spanning the last decade of his life, Updike uses descriptive language and sharp observations to portray the final stages of a life.

“Mild winter, then a birthday burst of snow.
A faint neuralgia, flitting tooth-root to
knee and shoulder-joint, a vacant head,
too many friendly wishes to parry,
too many cakes. Oh, let the years alone!
They pile up if we manage not to die,
glass dollars in the bank, dry pages on
the shelf. The boy I was no longer smiles” (3).

As the poem unfolds, Updike reveals his innermost thoughts. The reader perceives a man coming to grips with his demise, a person understanding inevitable decline and preparing others for life after he’s gone.

Expectations of the End

Yet no matter the expectation and inevitability of death, the thought of it remains absurd. It is the one universal experience for which we have no reference. When someone dies, we can’t interview them; we can’t gauge the feeling. Strange is the thought of leaving tangible evidence behind.

“Endpoint, I thought, would end a chapter in
a book beyond imagining, that got reset
in crisp exotics type a future I
—a miracle!—could read. My hope was vague
but kept me going, amiable and swift.
A clergyman—those comical purveyors
of what makes sense to just the terrified—
has phoned me, and I loved him, bless his hide” (24).

Aside from “Endpoint,” Updike’s other poems approach death from many angles. Whether observing the passing of time through music, nature, or a power tool, aging and the end remain present on Updike’s mind. Consider, the sonnet, “Tools”.

“Tell me, how do the manufacturers of tools
turn a profit? I have used the same clawed hammer
for forty years. The screwdriver misted with rust
once slipped into my young hand, a new householder’s.
Obliviously, tools wait to be used: the pliers,
notched mouth agape like a cartoon shark’s; the wrench
with its jaws on a screw; the plane still sharp enough
to take its fragrant, curling bite; the brace and bit
still fit to chew a hole in pine like a patient thought;
the taps rule, its inches unaltered though I have shrunk;
the carpenter’s angle, still absolutely right though I
have strayed; the wooden bubble level from my father’s
meager horde. Their stubborn shapes pervade the cellar,
enduring with a thrift that shames our wastrel lives” (79).

While on its surface, Updike ponders the business plan of the tool industry, the underlying notion of the poetry ponders the relationship between a long-lasting tool and its owner as he fades.

The Art of Death

Eventually we all will face death. Some might hope for a quick and painless death. The thought of enduring pain is too much. But for others—Updike included—facing demise results in high quality art. Updike’s poetry is beautiful, introspective, and lyrical. His poems during his final days are touching.

If you are a fan of poetry and the observations of a man coming to grips with his death, Endpoint and Other Poems is for you.

Verdict:  4.5 out of 5

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