Sweet land of liberty ... and malls

America's leading chronicler of culture returns to verse

'Americana and Other Poems," to be published next month, is an apt title for John Updike's fourth volume of poetry, his first since 1993. In the nearly 50 years that Updike has been writing professionally, he has written an equal number of books, thus becoming an integral aspect of literary Americana.

Few writers have mastered as many genres as Updike. This is affirmed in this intriguing volume of poetry, which both recapitulates and looks to the future with the precise acumen of the microscope, the dazzling array of images of a kaleidoscope.

With an epic sweep, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," the title poem begins: "Gray within and gray without: the dusk is rolling west, a tidal wave of shadow gently drowns Chicago." Expositional in style, the piece both describes and discourses with the surrounding urban landscape, this port of call, O'Hare airport.

There is a tough yet sensitive, stone-wall texture to these poems, at times echoing Robert Frost in their penetrating psychological aspects and challenging approaches. Also shared is the tenor of a New England voice, where Updike, like Frost, has made his home for much of his literary life: "The day, another grudgingly chill installment of slow spring in New England...."

"Americana and Other Poems" ranges from a number of brilliant, expositional epics that converse as they describe, to shorter works with their quick-silver epiphanies. Updike writes, seemingly randomly, of the pointedly affluent, in terms of both the new and old money class, and of the amorphously homespun in poems about New Jersey, and his roots in rural Pennsylvania.

The poems are comprised of four distinct sections featuring America and its cross-cultural cut of cities and towns, childhood reflections, and domestic and foreign travel. Thus, a sort of aesthetic itinerary is born of the poems.

The title "Boca Grande Sunset" has the alluring elegance of a travel brochure, yet the poet assesses the geographic and social terrain in almost the same context: "FL, where all the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.... Sand is a dollar a grain...."

And, in terms of the corresponding, almost despondent imagery: "A gull flaps home through bloodied skies."

Updike's iconography isn't Frederick Church's painterly grandeur of Romanticism and the heralded American landscape of, say, the 1860s. His perspective is that of the experiential here and now, which involves the sometimes mixed-mood confluence of optimism and pessimism.

In terms of topic, the poems take a flight to Europe or, in painful almost self-assessing microcosm, a trip to the dentist's office, where the drill is the metaphor for other concerns - aging and reassessment.

But, beyond the mill-town bleak, the almost despondent charm of a small-town cemetery or the stasis of affluent suburbs, a beauty and spirit, particularly American, prevails. There is the self-effacing demeanor of traveling in Venice and being regarded as a middle-aged, middle-class American tourist.

Expressing the countering doubt of those before him who have assessed foreign cultures, Updike writes in "Venetian Candy": "Harry's Bar, a disappointing place for all its testaments from Hemingway."

And, conversely, an elegance to travel in Japan, where poetic images of the exotic aspects of the Far East are beautifully grasped by Updike: "Who living would not love red, the torri gates lacquered like fingernails, and how the shrines just wait beneath the cedars...."

Reading this volume, a gallery of pictures, wide in their almost spiritual discernment and intrigue, unfolds. An America is revealed, comprised disparately of "the rubies of strip malls" and the reaffirming home-town perceptions that are almost metaphysically heroic: "Reality like a mild but inflexible mother stands waiting in the wallpaper."

In "Americana and Other Poems," Updike has added one more component to the intriguing composite defining Americana as we know it, a sleek book of poems that tells us a bit more about our heritage than, perhaps, we already knew.

Christopher Bowden is a poet and writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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