I dreaded those future aeons when I would not be present —
an endless succession of days I would miss, with their own
news and songs and styles of machine.
— John Updike, “On Being a Self Forever”
No, nothing much has changed.
A year later, the world is still one you’d recognize —
no winged cars to clog the air,
no robots to do our dirty work.
The hours and days, as it turns out,
just go on. No space age fabrics
drape our tired bodies, though I did try on a sweater
built of bamboo, soft as chewed silk.
The chrome surface of the dream’s lake
where I swim every night
still hides the same wreckage in its mud bottom.
Sometimes I open my eyes at the morning
and wonder what words you would wring
from the splendour and boredom
of these limited hours. Some day
there’ll be a future we won’t recognize,
but not now. Outside my window,
the low moan of winter in the ragged street.
Flakes of funereal ash falling from the sky.
The soiled comforters of the clouds;
the tightly wrapped buds of winter roses.
These grudging gifts of December,
tied in newsprint. For weeks after your death,
The New Yorker continued to print your backlog
as if death couldn’t stopper your creativity,
as if you were still writing in that midnight room.
But not a word from you now, and it’s dark at four.
Evelyn Lau, “Dear Updike” from Living Under Plastic. Copyright © 2010 by Evelyn Lau.
Source: Living Under Plastic (Oolichan Books, 2010)
- This poem begins with an epigraph from John Updike’s memoirs. What is Updike dreading?
- Re-read the second line. What happened the previous year?
- In her micro-interview, Lau states that, in her own work, she tries “to capture a fleeting moment/experience, or plumb the depths of a difficult emotion.” What moment/experience or emotion does she explore in this poem? What images does she use to evoke that emotion?
- Lau uses the pronouns “you”, “I” and “we” in the poem. What is the effect of this? Try removing them. Does this change the overall feeling of the poem?
- There is a shift in the middle of the poem at the line, “Sometimes I open my eyes at the morning.” How will you recite this part of the poem? What will you do to suggest self-reflection?
- This poem is a beautiful elegy. Choose someone you admire or whose work has inspired you but is no longer with us and write a poem describing how the world has been without them. Is it a future they would recognize?
Find out more about John Updike and his writing by watching this “Farewell to John Updike” video by CBS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QUqhuinOYI
Get to know more of Evelyn Lau’s latest work by watching this reading, where she shares poetry from her twelfth collection, Tumour. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoUdXpFitM4