Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Life must go on

Last March, the New York Public Library staged an excellent Tribute to John Updike presented by his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker magazine which published most of his poems and many stories. All speakers but one are connected with those two organizations. The exception is his son, David, an author himself, who teaches English at Roxbury Community College, in Boston.

The reminiscences are touching, humorous, and — as you'd expect — literate. One alone addresses the side of Updike's work I most appreciate: his poetry. This speaker, Deborah Garrison, said "his poetry has a very special place for us as readers, I think, because in the poems we feel that the distinction between the speaker’s voice and John Updike himself dissolves and rightly or wrongly, we have a sense that we’re hearing directly from him as he contemplates earthworms or turning sixty-one or dream objects and we have a great sense of intimacy and for those of us who — for readers, of course, who would never meet him or those of us who were only privileged to meet him on occasion over the years in the city, this was a real gift to us, this sense of intimacy that we felt in the poems, that we were really hearing his own thoughts."
{Photo credit: Robert Spencer for The New York Times}

She read three poems: The Stunt Flier, Fine Point, and A Rescue. In this last one, Updike writes:
Today I wrote some words that will see print.
Maybe they will last ‘forever,’ in that
someone will read them, their ink making
a light scratch on his mind or hers.
He then tells a small anecdote of a time he rescued a bird from his garden shed —
Without much reflection, for once, I stepped
to where its panicked heart
was making commotion, the flared wings drumming,
and with clumsy soft hands
pinned it against a pane,
held loosely cupped
this agitated essence of the air,
and through the open door released it,
like a self-flung ball,
to all that lovely perishing outdoors.
She did not read my favorite, Aerie, which begins
By following many a color-coded corridor
and taking an elevator up through the heart of the hospital
amid patients with the indignant stare of parrots
from within their cages of drugs,
one can arrive at the barbershop . . .
Or his typically backhanded celebration of Pain which begins:
Pain flattens the world - its bubbles
of bliss, its epiphanies, its upright
sticks of day-to-day business -
and shows us what seriousness is.
And which includes this powerful image of those who try to help its sufferers:
. . . and women bring their engendering smiles
and eyes of famous mercy,
these kind things slide away
like rain beating on a filthy window
The tribute by his son is quoted in yesterday's New York Times: A Toast to the Visible World: Remembering John Updike. It shows Updike as a man at ease with himself, wearing his celebrity comfortably, enjoying the ordinary pleasures of life.

Updike's poetic images reveal connections between astounding artistic achievement and the commonplace elements of daily life. Here's the start of a close observation of some great paintings:
Gradations of Black

(Third Floor, Whitney Museum)

Ad Reinhardt's black, in Abstract Painting 33,
    seems atmosphere, leading the eye into
that darkness where, self-awakened, we
grope for the bathroom switch; no light comes on,
    but slowly we perceive the corners of his square
black canvas to be squares just barely brown.
. . .
I saw a painting in the same series — Reinhardt's "Abstract Painting No. 4" of 1961 — in the Westmoreland Museum of American Art on our return trip from a brief midwest holiday. Having — the day before — been delayed by a breakdown and some heavy traffic outside Chicago, our visit to this hilltop museum was a special delight.

The Reinhardt is a square painting which at first sight seems uniformly black, but, more closely inspected, shows itself to be made up of nine squares in shades of very dark greys and browns — as Updike tells us. View this reproduction in full-size to get the general idea.

{source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannydanh/ on flickr}

The show is a traveling exhibit called
Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I liked all of it, in addition to the Reinhardt, particularly the Gottliebs and the paintings of Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan which aren't shown as often as those of their male counterparts.

{Image credit: Joan Mitchell, My Landscape II, 1967, oil, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection; source: Westmoreland Museum}

{This is MoMa's black Reinhardt. Photo by "ListenMissy!" on Flickr via

Here are some images from the exhibit. Source: Westmoreland Museum of American Art

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Some links on the exhibit:

Addendum: During our travels we stayed in motels run by the Country Inn & Suites chain (which we liked). One of their amenities is a small library for guests to raid for evening reads. There I found the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay containing this with its striking (and somewhat Updike-esque) final line:
LAMENT, by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I'll make you little jackets;
I'll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There'll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
{Image source: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jmillay.htm}

Disclaimer: The quotes on this page have all been made under fair use provisions of US copyright law.

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