This week, the news that Tracy K Smith had been chosen as the new poet laureate of the US provided me with a gleam of encouragement amidst the ever-worsening firestorm of current events. I first discovered Smith’s work in a college seminar on contemporary poetry. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning collection Life on Mars was required reading, and I immediately loved her powerful, clear-voiced, and accessible style. Many of her poems–The Speed of Belief, Eggs Norwegian, and The Good Life among them–have stuck in my head and prompted revisiting and rereading over the last few years. Last year, I taught The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to a class of middle school students.
In honor of Smith’s new role as poet laureate, I’d like to share some thoughts on Life on Mars. I’m also adding her memoir, Ordinary Light, to my reading list.
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith’s attempt to address death in the post-space age era, is an ambitious collection of poetry, spanning topics literally as vast as our ever-expanding universe.
Smith’s father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope during the 1980s, died in 2008, and his presence is felt throughout the book in Smith’s allusions to astronomy and outer space. If anything, Smith takes on too much. The book’s four parts chart a progression towards the internal, and Smith risks losing her readers along the way, but those who stay with her will find Life on Mars both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Smith begins by examining the world in which we live on a massive scale. Part one of the collection is an amalgamation of astronomical facts and Cold War pop culture references drawn from Smith’s childhood. “Sci-Fi” and “Museum of Obsolescence” offer Bradbury-esque visions of a future where “Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift / in the haze of space” or visit museums to stare at “an image of the old planet taken from space.” In “It & Co.,” Smith searches for something unnamed, “vast and unreadable.” Those who remember Sylvia Plath’s “Death & Co.” might guess that Smith is referring to death, but the unidentified “it” appears throughout the book in a variety of contexts. Among other things, “it” sometimes stands in for death, but also for life, space, and sex. As I read further in the collection and grew accustomed to Smith’s ambiguous “it,” I found myself substituting new words and concepts for “it,” testing out possible meanings for the lines. Smith turns the reader into the astronomer, searching for something to explain the motions of the universe.
Life on Mars ranges in scope from the cosmic to the political to the deeply personal, and Smith is at her best when, as in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she successfully unifies these extremes. The ambiguous “it” appears again in this title, taken from a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger. One man against the authorities. / Or one man against a city of zombies,” Smith writes, reminding us of the cinematic tropes that still shape popular conceptions of science and outer space. Smith goes on to describe a meeting with actor Charlton Heston, who, I learned from a visit to IMDb, starred in the 1968 sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes. Heston died in 2008, the same year as Smith’s father. Smith invites Heston inside, where, she writes, “I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back. / That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.” The scene underscores the vagueness of our understanding of time and space; Heston’s cryptic words sound like those of a movie character, and Smith’s notes at the end of the book give no hint as to whether their meeting is real or imagined. Here, Smith successfully uses ambiguity to force her readers to scrutinize the poem. The passage left me curious, but not disoriented.
When Smith describes her father for the first time in the book, she pairs her description of his work on the Hubble with the imagery of Cold War America:
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope […]
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button […]
Smith reminds us that the space race, which propelled humanity towards deeper and more complete scientific knowledge of our universe, was also driven by nuclear brinkmanship and fear of worldwide annihilation. Smith’s references to the Cold War set up her later discussion of the ongoing War on Terror, and by drawing a parallel between the two wars, Smith makes the Cold War allusions of part one more relevant to readers today.
“The Speed of Belief,” Smith’s elegy for her father, is one of two poems included in part two. The poem opens with a description of the hospital room where Smith and her family gather around her dying father, surrounded by “trays of food meant to fortify that silence.” The scene will be familiar to anyone who has visited a hospital death bed, where flowers and framed photos only partly mask the impersonality and sterility of the room. In the next section of the poem, Smith addresses her dead father, recalling her grandfather’s death:
When your own sweet father died
You woke before first light
And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,
And drank a glass of milk.
After you’d left, I sat in your place.
As Smith finds herself in her father’s place, this time metaphorically. Mourning her father’s death, she must once again ask the childhood question, “who were we / Without your clean profile nicking away / at anything that made us afraid?” As Smith struggles to explain her father’s death, she finds that she must redefine her own identity, both as a daughter, and as an individual. Who are we without the people we love? So much of our own selves are created in the context of our relationships that death forces us to examine ourselves. The final sections of the poem move toward increasingly abstract imaginings of death and life after death, closing with Smith’s prayer that her father is “what waits / to break back into the world // Through me.”
In part three, Smith’s poetry moves away from childhood memories to focus on recent tragedies. The book’s title poem, “Life on Mars,” is both luminous and chilling. As she tries to define “the space between people / When what holds them together isn’t exactly love,” Smith recounts news stories describing the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib and a woman imprisoned and raped by her father. The horrors of life on earth, and in America today can be just as surreal and grotesque as imaginings of extraterrestrial life. In “Solstice,” a modified villanelle, Smith uses the gassing of geese at the JFK airport as an opportunity for political commentary. Smith criticizes the Bush administration’s obsession with the War on Terror and holds American citizens accountable for our passive complicity in injustice, our readiness to “back away from all we say / And, more or less, agree with what we should.”
Some of Smith’s strongest poems appear in part four, a collection of vignettes from daily life. Smith listens to the neighbor’s screaming children, refuses to walk the dog with her partner, goes for a frustrating walk with the dog, and contemplates the “the years I lived on coffee and bread.” Most of these poems, though beautifully executed, seem disconnected from the previous sections. The two final poems of the book, “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” and “US & Co.” do return to earlier themes. In “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” a sonnet to addressed to her child at the moment of conception, Smith asks, “From what dream world did you wriggle free?” The question calls to mind Smith’s earlier imaginings a nebulous afterlife where her father waits to break back into the world.
“Us & Co.” the book’s closing poem, harks back to part one’s “It & Co.” In “It & Co.,” Smith asks, “We are a part of It. Not guests. Is It us, or what contains us?” While “Us & Co. does not exactly answer the questions that Smith has posed to herself throughout the book, she does manage to find a kind of resolution:
We are here for what amounts to a few hours
a day at most
We feel around making sense of the terrain,
our own new limbs,
Bumping up against a herd of bodies
until one becomes home.
“It,” once a single and foreign thing, becomes “us,” as we come to better know ourselves and the people around us. There is comfort in this. Yet Smith is well aware that this sense of familiarity with our world is at once real and illusory. We make our homes among particular people in a very specific society. There is so much beyond us that we ignore, and even more that is real, but which is also unknown to us.
“When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / after all we’re certain to lose, so alive —” or when we recall how the Hubble “saw to the edge of all there is — // so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the reader, like Smith, will find herself in awe. Smith’s questions about death inevitably become a contemplation, and often a celebration, of life. After all, the book is not titled Death on Earth, but Life on Mars.