Wednesday, December 21, 2011

End Game

Of the three posthumous books published by John Updike's family, his final collection of poetry speaks most intimately of his final days.  Endpoint and Other Poems (Knopf, 2009) actually offers the reader both a collection of Updike's considerable output since the publication of his Collected Poems and a long narrative poem ("Endpoint") which consumes nearly a third of the volume and is, for all intents and purposes, a final soliloquy detailing some of Updike's final thoughts and concerns.

The signature poem, written as a series of unrhymed sonnets, features several observations on birthdays, including 2004, 2005 and 2007.  The final seven sonnets are all dated, offering glimpses of Updike's concerns from the time he entered the hospital (11/02/08) had a needle biopsy (12/22/08) and eventually wrote on 12/22/08, just days before his death, waxing poetic of his faith and quoting from the 23rd Psalm: surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Unlike Updike's other posthumous volumes, the cover photo--of Updike standing with his back to the camera in posture of retreating down an autumn lane--is suggestive of his hand in creating the book itself, and the fact that he dedicates the book to his wife, Martha ("who asked for one more book") leaves the reader with the feeling that this is the one Updike regarded as his last.

Endpoint isn't a morbid book, however. It is filled with an array of other poems ranging from travel observations to the saguaro cactus, and another section of sonnets leads to a final chapter of light verse (the genre poetry Updike may be most widely-known for).  

In the end, this book is worth the price of admission, and anyone looking for a classic volume on dying well can't go wrong with shelving it beside Joan Didion's, The Year of Magical Thinking and C.S. Lewis's, A Grief Observed

Thank you, Mr. Updike.  

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