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Likely Stories: Selected Poems by John Updike


One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, John Updike is a master wordsmith. 

This new collection of Updike’s poetry caught me by surprise, and while I never tire of reading Updike, this collection of poems has recalled many I had forgotten.  Unfortunately, my favorite – and his first published work in The New Yorker – “Duet with Muffled Brake Drums” – is not in John Updike: Selected Poems.  One cannot have everything.

I wish I had an hour or two to read to you aloud more of the words and phrases, the mastery of language so evident in everything Updike wrote.  I once visited his grandmother’s farm, and met his mother one day as she fed her chickens in the yard.  This poem describes that home in Shillington, Pennsylvania.

Updike wrote, “The vacant lots are occupied, the woods / Diminish, Slate Hill sinks beneath its crown / Of solvent homes, and marketable goods / On all sides crowd the good remembered town. // Returning, we find our snapshots inexact. / Perhaps a condition of being alive / Is that the clothes which, setting out, we packed / With love no longer fit when we arrive. // Yet sights that limited our truth were strange / To older eyes; the town that we have lost / Is being found by hands that still arrange / Horse-chestnut heaps and fingerpaint on frost. // Time shades these alleys; every pavement crack / Is mapped somewhere.  A solemn concrete ball, / On the gatepost of a sold house, brings back / A waist leaning against a buckling wall. // The gutter-fires smoke, their burning done / Except for fanned within, an orange feather; / We have one home, the first, and leave that one. / The having and the leaving go on together” (9).

Another of my favorites is “Dogs Death.”  “She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car. / Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn / To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor / And to win, wetting there, the words, ‘Good dog!  Good dog!’ / We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction. / The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver. / As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin / And her heart was learning to lie down forever. // Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed / And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed. / We found her twisted and limp but still alive. / In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried // To bite my hand an died.  I stroked her warm fur / And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears. / Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her, / Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared. // Back home, we found that in the night her frame, / Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame / Of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor / To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog” (31).  I lost a beloved pet in almost identical circumstances, and this poem brought back all that pain, and sorrow, and tears.  As my mentor once said to me, “No tears in the writing -- no tears in the reading.” 

Updike can evoke all those feelings as quickly and lightly as a feather duster, capturing motes of images and emotions.  John Updike: Selected Poems is a fantastic place to explore one of the great writers of the 20th century.  5 stars


Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.