Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

Television is - its irresistible charm - a fire. Entering an empty room, we turn it on, and a talking face flares into being: better than the burning bush. (Roger's Version, 1986)

I remember reading The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur as a sixteen year old who desperately wanted to write fiction, especially enjoying The Centaur for the father-son relationship. At the time, I was also reading a book by a stern Easter European about how to write fiction, and didn't understand a thing he was saying, or what I was doing. I'd go into the basement laundry room and sit at a stern, uncomfortable table and stare up at the exposed beams and insulation and copper pipe and write badly in pencil in a steno notebook.
In such a moments of adventure he is impatient with his body, that its five windows aren't enough, he can't get the world all in. Joy makes his heart pound. God, having shrunk in Harry's middle years to the size of a raisin lost under the car seat, is suddenly great again, everywhere like a radiant wind. Free: the dead and the living alike have been left five miles below in the haze that has annulled the earth like breath on a mirror. (Rabbit is Rich)
Reading Updike made sense, though, he wrote so clearly and brilliantly and complexly, but with so little sign of effort, that he made me feel smarter and gifted just to be listening to him.
I was guilty of heresy, the heresy of which the Cathars and Fraticelli were long ago accused amid the thunders of anathema - that of commiting deliberate abdominations so as to widen and deepen the field in which God's forgiveness can magnificently play.

This is somewhat how I feel when I listen to Mozart, for example. Senior year in high school, we read Rabbit, Run. I gave an oral presentation on the short story, "The Lucid Eye in Silver Town," and was degraded for wearing a dirty raincoat, not making eye contact and picking at my face with my fingers. That said, I still got an A. How couldn't I? I loved the story, loved John Updike. "When Everyone Was Pregnant." One of the better short story titles I ever, I thought. His play, "Buchanan Dying," also inscrutable to me but part of his mystique, the cloud of his genius: he could write anything. He knew everything.
The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun's just started. (Rabbit Is Rich, 1981)
Then in college I read Couples in a "Contemporary American Fiction" class and figured that was it, I'd never be able to write. Of course, he also wrote a half dozen books of poetry along the way, always described as light verse by Updike himself, but often transcending that label. Here's a gorgeous sad one:
Another Dog’s Death by John Updike

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.
And the very ringing "Seven Stanzas at Easter," in which Updike, after his lifelong self-noted "tour of Protestantism" (the grandson of a Presbyterian minister, he was raised in the Lutheran church, but joined the Congregational church as an adult, though in his later years, he became an Episcopalian and dated a Methodist chaplain), seems to be professing his more Catholic incarnatory urges:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me

wipes me out