The National Catholic Review
Paul Mariani

I began writing my review of John Updike’s new collection of poems, Americana, during the week of Sept. 11 and froze, unable to inch forward, as the ironies in a book that begins with 15 poems about seeing America from the air compounded and screamed back at me. Poems with titles like “Corpus Christi,” “Near Clifton [New Jersey], Perhaps,” and especially the last two in the group, titled “New York City” and “Flight to Limbo.” How uncanny the lines read now, in the wake of the attack on those two giants that so recently stood at the prow of Manhattan:

This Pandemonium whose sky is like
the unfilled spaces of a crossword
puzzle,
whose bad breath underground makes sidewalks shudder,
whose sheets of windows rise like
thirsty thunder
above the glaze of blinding
expectation—
this hell holds sacred crevices where
lone
lost spirits preen and call their pit a
throne.

The glassed-in skyscrapers blown out, the pyramid of rubble, the subway beneath entombed, our many dead. It all takes on such a different caste now, doesn’t it, in the wake of police officers and firemen and doctors and priests doing what they could to help the people caught in those buildings, and the survivors injured in body and spirit, who—it is becoming clearer—may number in the hundreds of thousands. Updike, that brilliant commentator on American mores, with his Hogarthian satire, and the feeling we all have, I think, that “Aviation/ had never seemed a very natural idea.” What is contemporary America? Updike muses, as he flies across and over these states. The surprises attendant upon air travel—a group of teenage girls embarking at Atlanta for the return to Dallas/Fort Worth, fresh from their drill competition in Orlando, to blow away any possibility of the speaker settling in for a few hours of quiet. Getting lost in Clifton, N.J. (where, as it happens, my own mother was born), and realizing once again that in America

One town blends into another
imperceptibly,
Without the grace of a field, a Lions
sign,
or an Episcopal Church that
Welcomes You....
Humanity makes houses, houses
streets,
Streets traffic, and traffic trouble—
a sorry state.

And then the long look back to one of those undistinguished towns: Shillington, Pa., outside Reading, near Wernersville, where Updike grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s. And of course the town turns out to be anything but undistinguished, for it is another town where so many lives were lived out, and where Updike’s family is buried. Serious ground, then, as the poet Philip Larkin said, if only because so many of our dead lie buried round. Nor will Updike ever lie here with these ministers, businessmen and bankers, whose small secrets he knows. No, this world belongs to another epoch, what he calls “the Shillingtonian ethos,” the inoffensive, “mild/ belief that Earth’s safe center has been found,” here, on these heights, “where cold ambition climbs.” The molding shoes of 1926. The wrinkled suits of 1936. The dead, this contemporary world-travelling Thomas Gray reminds us, just don’t get around much anymore.

And yet, for all his urbanity and clipped ironies, Updike insists, he remains a son of Shillington, with its “dream of order” transposed here in the local cemetery “to an eternal scale,” as he remembers riding over these graves as a boy on a bicycle, as if the boy would never join the vast company below. That, he remembers now, 60 years later, was before he was expelled from the Garden forever.

The flags will fade
and tatter, the flowers will turn to
litter
before next May will wheel around
again
its formal protest against the
forgetting
that lets the living live. We were too
young,
we boys on bikes, to hide the giddy bliss
of floating over people freed from
need,
a field of buried guardians who bar
the pathway back with sharp-edged
swords of stone.

There are poems too about travel here and abroad: to Scotland, Prague, Paris, Orvieto, Venice, Japan, Brazil and even to Boca Grande (Big Mouth), Fla. A medley of travel poems covering the seasons of a day from dawn to dusk. Berryman’s late “Dream Songs” come to mind, the travel poems, though Updike’s are less manic and a bit better behaved. But Updike’s speaker sounds wearier, as if he had seen it all one too many times. Here’s a sunset at Boca Grande, disappearing like an old hag behind the curtains:

The Gulf
has given up its Caribbean tint
already and unrolls metallic breakers
in gilded flight from the sinking sore
orb,
which, touching the horizon, changes
form
like an invading molecule sucked
oblong
at a membrane’s verge. It turns
barn-shape,
broad red; is half a disc, and then a
tent
trembling; then less, and is doused. A gull flaps home
through bloodied skies. Event succeeds
event.

We are a long way from the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain here, which seems to me to be hinted at in the final lines by the presence of the trembling tent, the bird, the bloodied skies. It’s not that Updike is parodying the possibility of God’s suffused presence in the world. It’s rather as if the speaker no longer dares to hope that there might still be such a possibility. Any poet who can write a poem called “Song of Myself” is asking for comparison with Whitman, if even by a kind of comic inversion—Whitman’s promise of 1855 devolved now into the reality of the American scene at the start of the third millenium. Hart Crane did this, T. S. Eliot did this, and Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine and John Ashbery have all tried their hands at it. Now it’s Updike’s turn.

By extension, any poet who writes:

Each morning I reclaim,
Reluctantly at first,
The threads of yesterday,
Pulling my arms from beneath the
covers
To marvel once at my hands,
Five-petalled shadows in the bedroom
gloom.
I take up my body and walk...

must expect us to remember Christ’s injunction to the lame man to take up his bed and walk.

And yet, for all his urbanity, his bitter wit, his weariness, there remains a hunger in Updike for something more. It is no accident, I think, that just as the first words of this volume should announce a “Gray within and gray without,” so the last words should speak of a stirring amid glad tidings. Hence, the blank verse sonnet (evoking that other New England dweller, Robert Lowell) that closes the book, titled “A Sound Heard Early on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” The sound, it turns out, is the thump of the morning newspaper heralding the morning’s news. Not the Good News, perhaps, but something, the shadow limb reminding us of what might just be possible, or, if not that, might still just be alive to be hoped for. And more, the concern Updike has shown for the marginal, the losers, the anawim, the servants who clear our roads, and get the food to table, and fight our fires, and respond to the midnight call, and bring us news. Like Updike, perhaps, as a boy, delivering newspapers on a Christmas morning, by bike over frozen roads. Then and now. Sacred presence, then, by inference, to make us think again:

The thump of the newspaper on the
porch
on Christmas Day, in the dark before
dawn
yet after Santa Claus had left his gifts:
the real world reawakens; some poor
devil,
ill-paid to tear himself from bed and
face
the starless cold, the Godforsaken
gloom,
and start his car, and at the depot pack
his bundle in the seat beside his own
and launch himself upon his route, the news
affording itself no holiday, not even
this anniversary of Jesus’ birth,
when angels, shepherds, oxen, Mary,
all
surrendered sleep to the divine design,
has brought to us glad tidings, and we stir.

Paul Mariani is America’s poetry editor. His spiritual memoir, Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, will be published by Viking in February.