john updike | 1932 – 2009

18 03 2011

PoetryDispatch No. 343 | March 18, 2011


Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.

John Updike from “Spirit of ‘76”

Editor’s Note: This is John Updike’s birthday, March 18th. He would have been 79 years old today. He wrote a number of poems about his birthdays; some of which appear in the collection, ENDPOINT, a final book of poetry written in the last years of life, which he put together weeks before his death.

There are only seventeen poems in the first section of the book, titled “Endpoint” and many more in the sections “Other Poems”, “Sonnets”, and “Light and Personal.” But none of them speak to me as personally as his poems in the title section. Endpoint, indeed. All three poems quoted below seem to be written for me…to me.

I have loved and identified with Updike’s work since he first came upon the writing scene in the 1950’s. I have his first novel and all those that came after, , his first collection of short stories, his books of poems and essays. I read his very first stories published in The New Yorker.

He published a hundred and forty-six stories in The New Yorker from l954 to his last one, “One Full Glass” in 2008. He wrote twenty-three novels. And so much more. No other writer covered the outer and inner landscape of American life the way he did. He surpassed Hemingway, Steinbeck, Mailer…you name him, her. And no one writing today can come even close. There is always something else he was trying to get hold of, show us, tell us.

Reading Updike was reading about me. Not a bad thing to discover when you are starting out, trying to ‘write yourself.’ Oh, there were many other models out there as well. Many others who had my ear, heart, head. But no one put me back into the comforts of my own childhood, my own home and neighborhood, my own sense of time, place, social history the way Updike did with his stories, the ordinary things he saw and transformed in the telling. His Shillington, PA was my Cicero, Il. Our boyhoods were incredibly similar. Parallel lives and experiences in so many ways. To his very end he lent peace and satisfaction in this way. I couldn’t wait to pick up my weekly copy of The New Yorker every Saturday night and possibly find a new story by Updike. I meant to write him his/our entire lifetime, but never got around to it. Updike would be around forever.

I miss him immensely these days. I keep discovering and rediscovering his works. I lost track of his “Bech” books over ten years ago…and read all three of them in a row two weeks ago. Yes another side to Updike. Funny (and sad) as hell. His satiric take of the life and times of a ‘minor’ American writer. (Read “Updike” for “Bech” though he casts him a Jewish-American writer.)

But to get back to the poems below. There’s a lot of darkness in my life today, in my writing as well (the little I’ve been able to accomplish) but darkness comes with the writing territory from day one Most writers, however, keep shoving ii in the back (there’s youth and love and desire and so many other things) till it finally confronts them face to face. Full measure. Accident, failing health, depression, old age…death. There it is. Here you are. Hemingway ran away from it his entire life. Can a light on in the dark as a grown man. Then found the ways and means to put out the light for good, when it was time.

Updike handles this period of time in lines true to himself and all of his life that he committed to paper. Looking over his shoulder with a goodbye almost-smile to all that has been. Shakespearean soaring and sounding sometimes. A certain sadness for sure. His way of finding just the right words to express his own end…the times he illuminated for us all… which seem more like prayers of forgiveness, of thanksgiving, of life eternal.

Happy Birthday, John.

norbert blei

The Author Observes His Birthday, 2005

A life poured into words—apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder,
Erasmus’s and Luther’s Gutenberg-
perfected means of propagating truth,
or lies, screw-pressed one folio at a time.

A world long dulled by plagues and plainsong warmed
to metal’s kiss, the cunning kerns and serifs,
the Gothic spears and rounded Roman forms,
the creamy margins smartly justified,
the woodcuts showing naked Mother Eve:
a rage to read possessed the peasantry.

The church was right; the Bible freed
spelled trouble. Literate Protestants waged war,
and smashed the Lady Chapels all to Hell,
new-style. No Pope, no priests, no Purgatory—
instead, clear windows and the pilgrim soul,
that self which tribal ways suppressed, and whose
articulation asked a world of books.

A small-town Lutheran tot, I fell in love
with comic strips, Benday, and talk balloons.
The daily paper brought us headlined war
and labor strife; I passed them by en route
to the fannies section, where no one died
or even, saving Chic Young’s Blondie, aged.

My harried father told me, “Dog eat dog.”
I opted for a bloodless universe
of inked imaginings. My mother’s books
from college—Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott,
Lane Cooper, Sinclair Lewis, H. G. Wells—
made peaceful patterns with their faded spines.
I didn’t open them, unleashing dogs
too real for me, but sniffed their gentle smell

of paper, glue, and cloth. My many dreams
of future puissance—as a baseball star,
test pilot, private eye, cartoonist, or
as Errol Flynn or Fred Astaire—did not
include a hope to be the hidden hand
and mind behind some musty, clothbound maze.

But, then, to see my halt words strut in type!
To see The Poorhouse Fair in galley proofs
and taste the candy jacket Harry Ford cooked
up for me! And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!
I drank up women’s tears and spat them out
as l0-point Janson, Roman and ital.

When Blanche and Alfred took me out to lunch
he sent the wine right back. How swell, I thought.
Bill Maxwell’s treat was Japanese; we sat
cross-legged on the floor and ate fish raw,
like gulls. In suit and tie, an author proved
to be, like “fuck” in print, respectable.

Back then, my children, in those simpler years
before all firms were owned by other firms,
the checks would come imprinted with a dog,
a bounding Borzoi, or the profile of
a snooty figment, Eustace Tilley. He
was like a god to me, the guardian
of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words
and paid a grand or so for tales he liked.

A thousand dollars then meant we could eat
for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes.
My life, my life with children, was a sluice
that channeled running water to my pan;
by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I
at end of day might find a fleck of gold.

A writer, stony-hearted as he seems,
needs nurturing. My mother’s Remington
tip-tapped through all my childhood fevers, aimed
at realms beyond the sickbed, porch, and yard.
Though Pennsylvania Dutch, she fell in love
with Spain, its wistful knights and Catholic queens
and tried, tip-tap, to stretch her Remington
across the gap of space and time, and failed.

I took off from her failure. Katharine White
saw in me fodder for her magazine,
and Judith Jones, from 1960 on,
abetted all my books, an editor
excelling as encourager, who found
the good intention even in a botch.

My aspirations met indulgent spirits
long resident in Ink, Inc.’s castle keep:
I somehow wasn’t Jewish, which made me
minority and something of a pet.
When Mr. Shawn, the magus in his cave,
went pink, he whispered friendly oracles.
Urbane and dapper Sidney Jacobs, head
of Knopf production, gave a pica stick

to me that I still measure by, and books
of fonts I still consult. Wry Howard Moss
allowed my poems safe passage now and then.
A host of minions supervised my grammar;
a brace of wives forgave my doubtful taste.

Today, the author hits three score thirteen,
an age his father, woken in the night
by pressure on his heart, fell short of. Still,
I scribble on. My right hand occupies
the center of my vision, faithful old
five-fingered beast of burden, dappled with
some psoriatic spots I used to hate,
replaced by spots of damage the crude sun-cure

extracted from my dermis through the years.
The beast is dry and mottled, shedding skin
as minutes drop from life, a wristy piece
of dogged ugliness, its labors meant
to carve from language beauty, that beauty which
lifts free of flesh to find itself in print.

Hospital 11/23–27/08
Mass. General, Boston

Benign big blond machine beyond all price,
it swallows us up and slowly spits us out
half-deafened and our blood still dyed: all this
to mask the simple dismal fact that we
decay and find our term of life is fixed.
This giant governance, a mammoth toy,
distracts us for the daytime, but the night
brings back the quiet, and the solemn dark.

God save us from ever ending, though billions have.
The world is blanketed by foregone deaths,
small beads of ego, bright with appetite,
whose pin-sized prick of light winked out,
bequeathing Earth a jagged coral shelf
unseen beneath the black unheeding waves.
My visitors, my kin. I fall into
the conversational mode, matching it
to each old child, as if we share a joke
(of course we do, the dizzy depths of years)
and each grandchild, politely quizzing them
on their events and prospects, all the while
suppressing, like an acid reflux, the lack
of prospect black and bilious for me.

Must I do this, uphold the social lie
that binds us all together in blind faith
that nothing ends, not youth nor age nor strength,
as in a motion picture which, once seen,
can be rebought on DVD? My tongue
says yes; within, I lamely drown.

I think of those I loved and saw to die:
my Grampop in his nightshirt on the floor;
my first-wife’s mother, unable to take a bite
of Easter dinner, smiling with regret;
my mother in her blue knit cap, alone
on eighty acres, stuck with forty cats,
too weak to walk out to collect the mail,
waving brave good-bye from her wind-chimed porch.

And friends, both male and female, on the phone,
Their voices dry and firm, their ends in sight.
My old piano teacher joking, of her latest
diagnosis, “Curtains.”” I brushed them off,
these valorous, in my unseemly haste
of greedy living, and now must learn from them.
Endpoint, I thought, would end a chapter in
a book beyond imagining, that got reset
in crisp exotic type a future I
—a miracle!—could read. My hope was vague
but kept me going, amiable and swift.
A clergyman—those comical purveyors
of what makes sense to just the terrified—
has phoned me, and I loved him, bless his hide.

My wife of thirty years is on the phone.
I get a busy signal, and I know
she’s in her grief and needs to organize
consulting friends. But me, I need her voice;
her body is the only locus where
my desolation bumps against its end.

Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth 12/13/08

They’ve been in my fiction; both now dead,
Peggy just recently, long stricken (like
my Grandma) with Parkinson’s disease.
But what a peppy knockout Peggy was!—
cheerleader, hockey star, May Queen, RN.
Pigtailed in kindergarten, she caught my mother’s
eye, but she was too much girl for me.
Fred—so bright, so quietly wry—his

mother’s eye fell on me, a “nicer” boy
than her son’s pet pals. Fred’s slight wild streak
was tamed by diabetes. At the end,
it took his toes and feet. Last time we met,
his walk rolled wildly, fetching my coat. With health
he might have soared. As was, he taught me smarts.
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.

To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.

The town forgave me for existing; it
included me in Christmas carols, songfests
(though I sang poorly) at the Shillington,
the local movie house. My father stood,
in back, too restless to sit, but everybody
knew his name, and mine. In turn I knew
my Granddad in the overalled town crew.
I’ve written these before, these modest facts,

but their meaning has no bottom in my mind.
The fragments in their jiggled scope collide
to form more sacred windows. I had to move t
o beautiful New England—its triple
deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—
to learn how drear and deadly life can be.

[from ENDPOINT and Other Poems, Knopf, 2009]

norbert blei | updike’s poems

31 01 2009

Poetry Dispatch No.267 | January 29, 2009


Norbert Blei

He was one of our last major American writers who also paid attention to a lost art form: light verse. There was always humor in Updike’s lines, but he seemed especially fond of playing with words, rhythm, sound and ideas, “lightly’ in verse.

A contemporary of his, Phyllis McGinley, the queen of suburban light verse (THE LOVE LETTERS OF PHYLLIS McGINLEY, 1954) achieved considerable fame and respect herself in this form, though she came nowhere close to ‘also’ mastering the novel, the short story, journalism, criticism and ‘serious’ poetry.

As I continue to downsize my considerable library, I come upon book after ‘cheap’ paperback book–faded covers, yellowed or tanned pages, margin notes, underlined passages, bent spines or books still spotless, brand new…priced 35¢, 75¢, $1.00, $1.25 etc. Who could possibly love or honor these books more than I? All small, precious ‘pocket books’ that I cannot—give away? Sell? Trash? Who would want this stuff today, given what’s out there? Of what possible value would these antique texts be to anyone but (hopefully)…a ‘young’ writer who prefers to hold a real book in his hands? Or a serious reader? Any reader at all? This is the stuff even a library doesn’t want. Literary fodder. Extinct. Books destined to be ‘disappeared’ in one manner or another. So… I may as well keep them and request to be burned and buried with my old paperback books.

Among these, I find and delight in (once again), young Updike’s light verse.



My poems, at Mammon’s grim behest,
Have been collected here by Crest.
Forgive them, if they seem to thin;
Diaphanousness is no sin
In ballerinas’ skirts, so why
My own transparency decry?
It pleased me once to write them, and
I’m pleased to place them in your hand.

[from VERSE, Crest, 1965, 75¢]



Was I clever enough? Was I charming?
Did I make ay least one good pun?
Was I disconcerting? Disarming?
Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

Did I answer that girl with white shoulders
Correctly, or should I have said
(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,
But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”

And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?

[from VERSE, Crest, 1965, 75¢]

As much as my life is devoted to reading and writing, as fortunate as I am to be always near, in touch with writers, artists, readers, here/there/everywhere, I have rarely heard ‘serious poet’ come up in any discussion of John Updike. “They” will give him his light verse…but then it’s off to his ‘pretty prose”, his cultural perceptiveness, his sexual city and suburban motifs in short and long narratives.

But here’s a reminder: the man wrote a hell of a ‘serious’ poem as well. Don’t ever forget—or deny him this.

Who knows when any writer ‘discovers’ death creeping into his work for the first time. For some, it’s there in the very beginning. For others, it slips into his or her mid-life prose and poems. Still others may inadvertently write ‘goodbye’ only days or months before they write the final word.

ALL of the above seems ‘probably” true in Updike’s light and heavy world of getting one’s whole life down in words.


Burning Trash

At night—the light turned off, the filament
Unburdened of its atom-eating charge,
His wife asleep, her breathing dipping low
To touch a swampy source—he thought of death.
Her father’s hilltop home allowed him time
To sense the nothing standing like a sheet
Of speckless glass behind his human future.
He had two comforts he could see, just two.

One was the cheerful fullness of most things:
Plump stones and clouds, expectant pods, the soil
Offering up pressure to his knees and hands.
The other was burning the trash each day.
He liked the heat, the imitation danger,
And the way, as he tossed in used-up news,
String, napkins, envelopes, and paper cups,
Hypnotic tongues of order intervened.

[Collected Poems 1953-1993 , Knopf, 1993]


Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market-
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

[from Collected Poems 1953-1993, Knopf, 1993]


The poem, “Requiem” by all indications was John Updike’s most recent—and last word on the subject. It will appear in a forthcoming collection of his work:


It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
‘Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
‘I thought he died a while ago.’
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

john updike | march 18, 1932 – january 27, 2009

28 01 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.168 | January 28, 2009

John Updike

March 18, 1932—January 27, 2009

On Memories, Beginnings, Endings…

To begin with the end: Updike dead at 76…another long, quiet, sleepless night…last night, yet so fully alive remembering, remembering, going through all the Updike books on my shelves, thinking as well–his death too close to home…a writer I began to follow from my own beginnings, his first stories, first books…learning so much, admiring/studying the craft…so conscious too of certain common denominators we shared in boyhood…a writer who could not separate himself from fiction, but rendered it all, everything into art. His sentences–not written but sculpted…divined. His stories held you hostage in the very first lines.

He was not Mailer or Hemingway or Bellow or Hunter. He confessed, often, his grasp was small, more mundane…quite ordinary. What else to work with, growing up rural, in Shillington, PA? (He smiled.)

And so it what childhood…memories held in safekeeping to last seventy-six years…mother, father, grandparents…the shadow of the great depression…the farm, the town, the city, the suburbs…friends, first love/many loves…marriage, wives, lovers, children, separation, divorce, remarriage, grandchildren, travel, fame…pages and pages, books and books. He owned up to it all. Made it real–no character, setting, feeling you were likely to ever forget. Be it the life and times of “Rabbit” Angstrom (surely an American masterpiece), or the tails and travails of Richard and Joan Maple. (And was there ever a greater story written on the breakup of a marriage than “Separating” loss, anxiety, etc.? Required reading for anyone who’s been there, is there, or seems headed toward that rite-of-passage. Then all those stories of childhood which seem written in gold, glowing there in afternoon sunlight, lingering forever in a way you’ll never be again.

If there is one book of stories (his earliest stories) I would suggest for a writer just starting out to learn the tale and tell it well…it would be a paperback collection (difficult to find) called OLINGER STORIES. The map is there. And needs to be studied carefully.

One other book I urge writers, in particular, keep on their shelves and read often: SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike. A memory to take into your own consciousness and lead you where you need to go.

Here are a few excerpts from some of works mentioned above…in memory and love of an American writer who knows how story leads to story, without end. —Norbert Blei


The point, to me, is plain, and is the point, more or less, of all these Olinger stories. We are regarded unexpectedly. The muddled and inconsequent surface of things now and then parts to yield us a gift. In my boyhood I had the impression of being surrounded by an incoherent generosity, of—to quote a barefaced reminiscence I once wrote—a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a [ brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm. A wordless reassurance these things are pressing to give. An hallucination? To transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery: is it possible or, in view of the suffering that violently colors the periphery and that at all moments threatens to move into the center, worth doing? Possibly not; but the horse-chestnut trees, the telephone poles, the porches, the green hedges recede to a calm point that in my subjective geography is still the center of the world.

[from the “Foreward” to OLINGER STORIES, Vintage Books, 1964

Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed (but several years after the soft spring night in Shillington that it describes) I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography—to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me! The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography. They record what seems to me important about my own life, and try to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd unique¬ness of all the oddly unique lives in this world. A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim: an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins, with a scientific dispassion and curiosity. The veins had been tapped, of course—the lode mined—in over thirty years’ worth of prose and poetry; and where an especially striking or naked parallel in my other work occurred to me, I have quoted it, as a footnote. But merciful forgetfulness has no doubt hidden many other echoes from me, as well as eroded the raw material of autobiography into shapes scarcely less imaginary, though less final, than those of fiction.

[from the “Forward” to SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

We are all of mixed blood, and produce mixed results. At a low time in my life, when I had taken an exit not from my profession but from my marriage, and left your mother and her siblings more in harm’s way than felt right, my mother in the midst of her disapproval and sadness produced a saying so comforting I pass it on to you. She sighed and said, “Well, Grampy used to say, ‘We carry our own hides to market.’ ” The saying is blunt but has the comfort of putting responsibility where it can be borne, on a frame made to fit. The comfort of my hearing it said lay of course in its partial release from tribal obligations—our debt of honor to our ancestors and our debt of shelter to our descendants. These debts are real, but realer still is a certain obligation to our own selves, the obligation to live. We are social creatures but, unlike ants and bees, not just that; there is something intrinsically and individually vital which must be defended against the claims even of virtue. Quench not the spirit. Do not hide your light beneath a bushel basket. Do not bury your talent in the ground of this world. In this grandfatherly letter about my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, let me end by offering you, as part of your heritage, this saying ascribed to my other grandfather, John Hoyer, whom I knew well, who watched me grow from infancy and who lived in good health until he was over ninety. You carry your own hide to market.
Love, Grandpa

[“A Letter to My Grandsons”, from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless-high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot: without his frantic ambition and insecurity I would not now be sitting on (as my present home was named by others) Haven Hill. And my Ipswich self, a delayed second edition of that high-school self, in a town much like Shillington in its blend of sweet and tough, only more spacious and historic and blessedly free of family ghosts, and my own relative position in the “gang” improved, enhanced by a touch of wealth and celebrity, a mini-Mailer in our small salt-water pond, a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife-does, flirtatious, malicious, greedy for my quota of life’s pleasures, a distracted, mediocre father and worse husband—he seems another obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky and, in the service of his own ego, remorseless. But, then, am I his superior in anything but caution and years, and how can I disown him without disowning also his useful works, on which I still receive royalties? And when I entertain in my mind these shaggy, red-faced, overexcited, abrasive fellows, I find myself tenderly taken with their diligence, their hopefulness, their ability in spite of all to map a broad strategy and stick with it. So perhaps one cannot, after all, not love them.

[“On Being a Self Forever”, from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

Even toward myself, as my own life’s careful manager and promoter, I feel a touch of disdain. Precociously conscious of the precious, inexplicable burden of selfhood, I have steered my unique little craft carefully, at the same time doubting that carefulness is the most sublime virtue. He that gains his life shall lose it. In this interim of gaining and losing, it clears the air to disbelieve in death and to believe that the world was created to be praised. But I inherited a skeptical temperament. My father believed in science (“Water is the great solvent”) and my mother in nature. She looked and still looks to the plants and the animals for orientation, and I have absorbed the belief that when in doubt we should behave, if not like monkeys, like “savages”—that our instincts and appetites are better guides, for a healthy life, than the advice of other human beings. People are fun, but not quite serious or trustworthy in the way that nature is. We feel safe, huddled within human institutions—churches, banks, madrigal groups—but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self’s responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let’s say, the walk back from the mailbox.

[“On Being a Self Forever”, from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

john updike | stolen

21 10 2007





Poetry Dispatch No.88 | July 6, 2006

William Maxwell died in July, 2000.. He was a fiction editor at The New Yorker for much of his life. A shy, unassuming man, he preferred the background to the limelight. He also suffered to some extent that particular predicament of writers-who-edit: a perception that they edit because they can’t or chose not to write.

William Maxwell, however, was one of the twentieth century’s finest novelists and short story writers. I must admit I discovered his work late in my own writing career, long after I began to publish. But upon reading Maxwell’s beautiful novel, SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW , his fables, THE OLD MAN AT THE RAILROAD CROSSING AND OTHER TALES, and his collected stories, ALL THE DAYS AND NIGHTS, I discovered how much I still had to learn.

The gentle Maxwell, an Illinois-boy who became a quintessential New Yorker, while never forgetting, or forgetting to write about the hometown, Lincoln, Illinois, was a good friend to many good and great writers.

The poem that follows comes from a collection of memories about Maxwell set down by Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, Shirley Hazzard, Richard Bausch, Donna Tartt, and John Updike, among others, who wrote “Stolen” for the editor, writer, and friend who mentored him through much of his writing life. Norbert Blei


Stolen by John Updike

Please go on being yourself.
—From my last letter from William Maxwell, July 28, 2000

What is it like, to be a stolen painting—
to be Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”
or “The Concert,” by Vermeer, both burglarized,
along with “Chez Tortoni” by Manet,
and some Degases, from the Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum, in Boston, twelve years ago?

Think of how bored they get, stacked
in the warehouse somewhere, say in Mattapan,
gazing at the back of the butcher paper
they are wrapped in, instead of at
the rapt glad faces of those who love art.

Only criminals know where they are.
The gloom of criminality enshrouds them.
Why have we been stolen? they ask themselves.
Who has benefitted? Or do they hang
admired in some sheikh’s sandy palace,
or the vault of a mad Manila tycoon?

In their captivity, they may dream of rescue
but cannot cry for help. Their paint
is inert and crackled, their linen friable.
They have one stratagem, the same old one:
to be themselves, on and on.

The boat tilts frozen on the storm’s wild wave.
The concert has halted between two notes.
An interregnum, sufficiently extended,
becomes an absence. When wise
and kindly men die, who will restore
disappeared excellence to its throne?

from A WILLIAM MAXWELL PORTRAIT, Memories and Appreciations