Monday, March 16, 2009

The City Outside

Yesterday I posted one of John Updike's last poems that was recently published in the latest New Yorker issue. I went on a little shpeal about the final days of Updike's life as he slowly died from lung cancer.

He wrote a series of poems in his final days, and they were published in this magazine. I am fascinated by them. In the previous post and posts to come, I will post some that I find memorable and worth reading. He will definitely leave a fine stamp on literary America.

This poem is called "The City Outside" and, as you can tell, it chronicles Updike as he sits and listens to things around him. I believe he is in the hospital at this time; he was in the hospital at least before Thanksgiving, and I'm sure other details from the poem can prove this.

When you're laying in the hospital knowing that death is coming, what else would you think about? What would certain noises make you think of? Would they trigger old memories; would they make them seem trivial; would they point out flaws in your past; would it make you feel melancholy; would it make you feel like you're wasting your last months here? What would you think of?

Here are his thoughts as he lays in bed. This poem was written on December 11, 2008.

The City Outside

by John Updike

Stirs early: ambulances pull in far
below, unloading steadily their own
emergencies, and stray pedestrains
cross nameless streets. Traffic picks up at dawn
and lights in the skyscrapers dim.
The map of Beacon Hill becomes 3-D,
a crust of brick and granite, the State House dome
a golden bubble single as the sun.

I lived in Boston once, a year or two,
in furtive semi-bachelorhood. I parked
a Karmann Ghia in Back Bay's shady spots
but I was lighter then, and lived as if
within forever. Now, I've turned so heavy
I sink through twenty floors to hit the street.


I had a fear of falling: airplanes
spilling their spinning contents like black beans;
the parapets at Rockafeller Center or
the Guggenheim proving too low and sucking
me down with impalpable winds of dread;
engorging atria in swank hotels,
the piano player miles below his music,
his instrument no bigger than a footprint.

I'm safe! Away with travel and abrupt
perspectives! Terra firma is my ground,
my refuge, and my certain destination.
My terrors--the flight through dazzling air, with
the blinding smash, the final black--will be
acheived from thirty inches, on a bed.


Strontium 90--is that a so-called
heavy element? I've been injected,
and yet the same light imbecilic stuff--
the babble on TV, newspaper fluff,
the drone of magazines, banality's
kind banter--plows ahead, admixed
with world collapse, atrocities, default,
and fraud. Get off, get off the rotten world!

The sky is turning that pellucid blue
seen in enamel behind a girlish Virgin--
the doeskin lids downcast, the smile demure.
Indigo cloud-shreds dot a band of tan;
the Hancock Tower bares a slice of night.
So whence the world's beauty? Was I deceived?

He really goes through a lot of memories just by triggered noises from outside. It must be weird to lay there in the morning and hear all these familiar sounds, but you no longer have connection to them when you only have a month or so to live. Maybe you used to get up in the morning and you hear the traffic and see the sun rise with the lights slowly turning on in office buildings. You dreaded that part of the day (maybe), but now (maybe) you wish you had it back because at least then you were alive.

I enjoy how observant he is in this state. He isn't giving up. He's still living his life even though he's constrained to a hospital bed. He muses, he thinks of his old life. He comments on the city around him. I give him credit for writing such eloquent poetry in such a troubling time.

So, what do you think of "The City Outside" or John Updike?

1 comment:

Mike said...

i loved it