BOOK REVIEW / At home with the brooder of suburbia: 'Collected Poems: 1953-1993' - John Updike: Hamish Hamilton, 20 pounds

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WHETHER writing in formal verse or prose, John Updike has always been a poet. Everything turns to metaphor beneath his swiftly moving pen: even the cramped passengers on a night flight over the Atlantic become 'Sweet fish tinned in the innocence of sleep.'

Updike's figural language works best in his fiction, where most of the excess is absorbed by the narrative motion itself. Even the gaudiest images seem necessary, off- handedly exact, observational gems that centre the story, lending it ballast and balance.

In Updike's richly various Collected Poems, it is surprising how many times the poet does strike the right note, which for him is most often whimsical, with a touch of wist, as in 'Sunday Rain': 'The window screen/ is trying to do/ its crossword puzzle/ but appears to know/ only vertical words.'

This is light verse, but Updike admits in his preface to a liking for this easily dismissed genre. If literature is, as they used to say, a mirror held up to life, Updike must be one of the great mirror-holders of our time. His work is, always, a ceremony of attention, and his reflected world is distinctly suburban American. The games of golf and Caribbean holidays are all here. Even Saturday household chores (taking the garbage to the town dump or putting up storm windows) become the occasion for poetry. Updike writes an ode to the week's laundry hanging on the clothesline and a poetic advertisement for a well-known brand of kitchen cleanser. There is a witty poem about a child's graduation from a posh school and another about a disused bicycle chain. Life's mundane bits and pieces are gathered here, reformed (if not transformed), celebrated.

Lyric poetry tends to be autobiographical, and Updike has never shrunk from self-revelation. 'Midpoint' is a long sequence of snapshots from the Life of Updike, incorporating actual family photos into the text. We follow the writer's travels and travails: his early childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania, his ambivalent affection for his strong mother, his travels in England, Antigua, Russia and the tropics. These, and his poems about American cities and landscapes, often seem more like postcards than poems. The writer's first marriage, his children, his divorce, his rediscovery of love in middle age: the familiar Updikean bases are all touched, and his obsession with sex is everywhere on display (rather absurdly in 'Nuda Natens', 'Fellatio' and 'Squirrels Mating'). The infamous sexism is also apparent: Updike takes a rigidly old-fashioned view of gender differences, and sometimes the results are outrageous, as in 'Boston Lying In':

Here women, frightened, bring their sex

as black men bring their wounds to the nighttime ward,

red evidence of rampages they ask

abstracted doctors to forgive,

forgive and understand and heal.

Updike's virtues, however, are plentiful. His poems reveal a fine intellect, as one might expect; they are genial and sophisticated, and they possess a wonderfully tactile quality that becomes, finally, the subject as well as the texture of his best poems.