Dizzily Resonating With Two John Updike Poems About Death

updike

John Updike And Me

After Julie1 died in 1999, I found poetry2 and, to a lesser extent, music more meaningful than the spiritual guides, self-help books, philosophical meditations, and the other aids well meaning folks recommended as a means of assuaging my grief and loss.

Consequently, I have, if not sought out, at least been alert for verses that deal with death. As anyone who has spent time in a English Lit course knows, however, one can fill several anthologies with poems of that ilk. So, after collecting specimens with the crude screening device of “poems about death,”  I winnow those that speak to my feelings about losing Julie and, more recently, losing Lawanda,3 the woman with whom I shared my life for four years until her death last June.

The demise of John Updike earlier this year  led, unsurprisingly,  to the re-publication of much of his work, including several poems that meet the “about death” criterion.

And, I’ve found two that indeed speak to me.

The trick is that these poems  resonate more with my sense of my own mortality than with my losses of those I loved.

Perfection Wasted

In “Perfection Wasted,” Mr. Updike has captured not only his concerns about “the ceasing of [his] own brand of magic,” his well honed repartee with his loved ones, that death will entail but also my own, far less justified angst about the death-invoked dissolution of my meager repertoire of puns and jokes I use to connect to those important to me.

Nonetheless, the humiliation of having a mirror held to my narcissism is a fair exchange for access to this impeccable contemplation that unapologetically celebrates a life devoted to words and simultaneously mourns the inevitable loss of that unique “whole act.”

And, I now aspire to some day devise a first line as cleverly casual,  finely comic, and profound as “And another regrettable thing about death.”

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories
packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

–John Updike
May 7, 1990

Hospital

Every line of every verse of “Hospital” is moving and made all the more poignant by the realization that Updike is not only writing poetry but also reporting on his own life in real time.

But, it’s the last stanza written about his wife – and especially those last two lines that devastate me every time I read them:

her body is the only locus where
my desolation bumps against its end.

Hospital

Benign big blond machine beyond all price,
it swallows us up and slowly spits us out
half-deafened and out blood still dyed: all this
to mask the simple dismal fact that we
decay and find out term of life is fixed.
This giant governance, a mammoth toy,
distracts us for the daytime, but the night
brings back the quiet, and the solemn dark.

God save us from ever ending, though billions have.
The world is blanketed by foregone deaths,
small beads of ego, bright with appetite,
whose pin-sized prick of light winked out,
bequeathing Earth a jagged coral shelf
unseen beneath the black unheeding waves.

My visitors, my kin. I fall into
the conversational mode, matching it
to each old child, as if we share a joke
(of course we do the dizzy depths of years.)
and each grandchild, politely quizzing them
on their events and prospects, all the while
suppressing, like and acid reflux, the lack
of prospect black and bilious for me.

Must I do this, uphold the social lie
that binds us all together in blind faith
that nothing ends, not youth nor age nor strength,
as in a motion picture which, once seen,
can be rebought on DVD? My tongue
says yes; within, I lamely drown.

I think of those I loved and saw to die;
my Grandpop in his nightshirt on the floor,
my first wife’s mother, unable to take a bite
of Easter dinner, smiling with regret,
my mother in her blue knit cap, alone
on eighty acres, stuck with forty cats,
too weak to walk out to collect the mail,
waving brave goodbye from her wind-chimed porch.

And friends, both male and female, on the phone,
their voices dry and firm, their ends in sight.
My old piano teacher joking, of her latest
diagnosis, “Curtains.” I brushed them off,
these valorous, in my unseemly haste
of greedy living, and now must learn from them.

Endpoint, I thought, would end a chapter in
a book beyond imagination, that got reset
in crisp exotic type 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.

My wife of thirty years is on the phone.
I get a busy signal, and I know
she’s in her grief and needs to organize
consulting friends. But me, I need her voice;
her body is the only locus where
my desolation bumps against its end.

–John Updike
Mass. General, Boston, November 23-27, 2008

  1. Julie was my much-beloved, fiercely smart, extraordinarily sexy wife, who died in 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a prize-winning writer. This blog includes many other posts about her and the unlikely but true story of our romance  as well as several of her short stories and other pieces.  For the location of the various content about or by Julie, see Julie FAQ. []
  2. See Then They Stay Dead, Sisyphus Does Easter, A Lifetime Together Will Not Be Enough, and Dying is simple, What’s worst is the separation []
  3. Again, “Lawanda” was the blogonym she insisted I use for her. It was not my idea. []

0 responses to “Dizzily Resonating With Two John Updike Poems About Death

  1. Hmmmmmmm…