Updike’s last poems

John Updike
John Updike

Reading about Robin Williams’ death, I wanted to read what writers wrote in their last days, in their illness or old age, when they knew they were about to die. That is how I came across these poems by my favourite writer, John Updike.

The Requiem was published in the New York Times on January 28, 2009, the day after he died of lung cancer at the age of 76, two months short of his birthday. The other poems are from a sequence of ten, called Endpoint, published in the New Yorker, the magazine with which he had been associated from the time he became a writer in the 1950s. The Endpoint poems appeared in the New Yorker issue dated March 16, 2009, two days before his 77th birthday. Updike was born on March 18, 1932.

These poems also appeared in Endpoint and Other Poems, a posthumous collection of his poetry, published in March 2009.

By John Updike
It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
(Published in the New York Times on January 28, 2009)
A Lightened Life
By John Updike
Beverly Farms, April 14, 2008
A lightened life: last novel proofs FedExed—
the final go-through, back-and-forthing till
all adjectives seemed wrong, inferior to
an almost glimpsed unreal alternative
spoken perhaps on Mars—and taxes, state
and federal, mailed. They were much more this year,
thanks to the last novel’s mild success,
wry fruit of terror-fear and author’s tours.
Checks mailed, I stopped for gas, and plumb forgot
how to release the gas-cap door. True,
I’d been driving a rented car for weeks. But, too,
this morning I couldn’t do the computer code
for the accent grave in fin-de-siècle, one
of my favorite words. What’s up? What’s left of me?
(Second in a ten-poem sequence, Endpoint, published in the New Yorker issue dated March 16, 2009)
By John Updike
November 2, 2008
My window tells me the euonymus
arrives now at the last and deepest shade
of red, before its leaves let go. One of
my grandsons leaves a phone message for me;
his voice has deepened. A cold that wouldn’t let go
is now a cloud upon my chest X-ray:
pneumonia. My house is now a cage
I prowl, window to window, as I wait
for time to take away the cloud within.
The rusty autumn gold is glorious.
Blue jays and a small gray bird, white-chested,
decline to join the seasonal escape
and flit on bushes below. Is this an end?
I hang, half-healthy, here, and wait to see.
(Third in the ten-poem sequence, Endpoint, published in the New Yorker issue dated March 16, 2009)


Needle Biopsy
By John Updike
December 22, 2008
All praise be Valium in Jesus’ name:
CAT-scan needle biopsy sent me
up a happy cul-de-sac, a detour not
detached from consciousness but sweetly part—
I heard machines and experts murmuring about me—
a dulcet tube in which I lay secure and warm
and thought creative thoughts, intensely so,
as in my fading prime. Plans flowered, dreams.
All would be well, I felt, all manner of thing.
The needle, carefully worked, was in me, beyond pain,
aimed at an adrenal gland. I had not hoped
to find, in this bright place, so solvent a peace.
Days later, the results came casually through:
the gland, biopsied, showed metastasis.
(Eighth in the ten-poem sequence, Endpoint, published in the New Yorker issue dated March 16, 2009)
(See also Selected Poems)

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