Endpoint is an extraordinary sequence of seventeen poems John Updike wrote near the end of his life.  Beginning on his birthday in March,  2002, he wrote a poem every birthday for the next 6 years.  Then after his 2008 birthday he wrote several more poems, mostly focusing on his dying from lung cancer.  The last poem, "Fine Point," was dated 12/22/08.  He died in January, 2009.  The poems also include memories of his mother writing and cranking out manuscripts, but never getting published; of childhood friends who became models for characters in his novels; of getting lost in a department store as a three-year-old; of Jack Benny and FDR, Mickey Mouse and Barney Google, as well as five wars. The memories are both personal and international in scope.  His attitude toward them varies from distress to appreciation and gratitude.


While the poems express Updike's fight against aging and dying, they are also expansive,  hopeful and engaged.  His most bleak winter imagery has crocuses poking through the snow.  He closes his first birthday poem, "March Birthday, 2002, and After," with these lines:

Nature is never bored, and we whose lives / are linearly pinned to these aloof, / self-fascinated cycles can't complain, though aches and pains and even dreams a-crawl / with wood lice of decay give pause to praise. / Birthday, death day-what day is not both?

I am reminded of Dylan Thomas's "time held me green and dying / though I sang in my chains like the sea" (from "Fern Hill").   Updike, even as a child, seemed to have "a faint pretaste of death" when he walked with his parents along the beachside boulders.  He appreciates the good  warm sunlight even though he knows his skin cells "remember / and wrinkle, pucker, draw up in a knot/ the doctor's liquid nitrogen attacks."  Though he feels his mortality, his writing feels immortal.  He remembers the thrill of seeing his words "strut in type" and the check from the publisher that meant his family could eat for months. Although he dislikes the look of the psoriatic spots on his hand, he keeps on writing "to carve from language beauty, that beauty which lifts free of flesh to find itself in print."

Some of these "dying" poems allude to other writers.  In "Needle Biopsy 12/22/08" he describes floating in a valium haze, believing "All would be well . . . all manner of thing" (T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"), but the results showed metastasis.  Echoes of W. B. Yeats sound in "Spirit of '76":

My imitation of a proper man,/ white-haired and wed to aging loveliness,/ has fit me like a store-bought suit.

The last lines he wrote in the "Endpoint" collection speak to his faith:  "Surely"-magnificient, that "surely"-- / "goodness and mercy shall follow me all / the days of my life", my life, forever. 



Place Published

New York



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