Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith

This book makes familiar things strange from the perspective of space, and reimagines the cosmos, sometimes in earthly terms, as strangely as inadequate human understanding can.  Several months after first reading Life on Mars it still resonates; the stardust has stuck.  I hadn’t heard of it until an American friend chose it for a poetry reading group, and most people I’ve mentioned the book to hadn’t either – it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 but doesn’t seem to have entered the general consciousness here. 

‘The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’ invents that soundtrack and shows how Smith plays with scale.  She is expert at delivering the cosmic dizzyness that comes from looking into space.  It’s hard to extract lines from the six couplets; the whole poem is here at the Poetry Foundation along with several others. 

                  So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

The dark we've only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat.

The description of space travel makes it seem tiny, banal and gimcrack as a stage set.  As for the last half-line – what an extraordinary simile – a reach of association large enough for the subject.  

Smith’s father was an engineer whose job may have taken her imagination into space at an early age: 

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

That is from ‘My God, It’s Full of Stars’ (the title a quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey).  This long poem is one of several that is in parts, each part with a different form.  It takes in zombie plots, Charlton Heston and 2001, all supporting passages of metaphysical speculation:

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,

That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—

When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,

Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel

Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

The whole poem is overshadowed by the death of Smith’s father. So far I’ve quoted only from the book’s first section of four which is the most cosmic in scale, because for me this is what really makes the collection stand out.  But Life on Mars reaches as deeply in to human experience as out to the stars. There are elegies/meditations on the poet’s father; there are poems on love and childbirth and poems that contain gang rape, modern piracy and the torture of Abu Ghraib.  All have the same fluency and energy of form and language, and similar cosmic and metaphysical preoccupations.  Smith probes the nature of reality and strangeness of experience, posing questions such as: where do tangible things go, and things that are not tangible?  This is the end of a ghazal, part of ‘The Speed of Belief’, a poem in memory of her father.

      Perhaps one day it will be enough to live a few seasons and return to ash.
      No children to carry our names. No grief. Life will be a brief, hollow walk.
      My father won’t lie still,though his legs are buried in trousers and socks.
      But where does all he knew – and all he must now know – walk?

From Hubble
She can do strict form – there’s a villanelle whose irony is all the harsher for its precision.  The tone is hugely assured, poised, as any space mission must be.  The poems have a musicality that made me wonder about influences from this side of the Atlantic; then I read that she’d been taught by Seamus Heaney for two college years, and revered him.  Her lines are both weighty and light-footed.  Wallace Stevens is certainly lurking and sometimes the strangeness holds an echo of Marianne Moore, as at the end of the riddling ‘It & Co.’:

Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.

Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-

Appeasable. It is like some novels:

Vast and unreadable.

‘They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected’ (title taken from a Dead Sea scroll) considers five American hate killings, mostly racially motivated, that took place within just over a month in 2009.  In between passages meditating on hatred, fear and ordinariness, each of the victims writes a (prose) postcard to his or her murderer from a celebrated American landmark.  These have the banalities of any postcard, from what-I’ve-been-doing to thoughts and hopes… but altered.  “Tonight I’m at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  I don’t know where I end.”  This is deeply unsettling.  The poem’s final passage begins: “Line them up. Let us look them in the face.”  (“Them” being the killers.)  It is the last thing we want to do, after reading the postcards. 

Life on Mars, Tracy K Smith's third collection, is published by Graywolf Press.  It’s readily available to UK readers on the internet. 

Here is the ending of ‘My God, It’s Full of Stars’. The poem is at the Poetry Foundation.
On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

In praise of StAnza; Carolyn Forché in praise of the festival. Cleaning 100 baths. Eider ducks

Sunday, the last day: sunshine on bare branches and gulls’ wings, dark blue sea.  Blossom coming out in the Byre’s outer yard.  The sound of suitcases being wheeled over the bumpy thresholds of events.   

One nice thing about the end of festivals is that everyone can thank the people who made them happen…  Massive applause in the theatre after the final reading with Bill Manhire and Sinéad Morrissey (which deserves a word like ‘intimate’ but less clichéd); and flowers for director Eleanor Livingstone. Correction: these were not handed over by her predecessor Brian Johnstone, whose grand white twirly moustache had illuminated the venues, but by chair of StAnza trustees Colin Will whose bardic white beard had done the same. My apologies to both.    Brian Johnstone was sitting near me, but that doesn't explain it.

The staff and student volunteers were lovely: cheerful, friendly, calm, helpful and tactful (kind to latecomers!)  They projected a sense of enjoyment.  StAnza trustees were there in quiet support, chairing the events while modestly not introducing themselves.  I am very grateful to one of them for exercising judgement in favour of two or three of us who queued for non-existent returns at a certain door... 

St Andrews wynd
As for Eleanor...  She’d been working flat out, of course – sending pre-festival emails at all hours of the night.  One wouldn’t have guessed; she was such a welcoming host, appearing everywhere and with a word for everyone.  She’d commissioned me to blog about StAnza.  I felt guilty about taking any time when she had dozens of poets to deal with but she made it seem no bother.  StAnza treats its people well. 

Not long before the festival, having just read an email from Eleanor, I was cleaning the bathroom [worst domestic task]... thinking, Would I rather be doing this or in the final stages of directing a poetry festival?  The festival won.  But if I were in the last stages of directing the festival, which would I rather do?  Quite possibly cleaning the bath.  So I said this in my reply, and Eleanor said: “Most days at the moment I’d take cleaning a hundred baths over this.”  But then she went on to talk about the buzz in the StAnza office with full team and dozens of student volunteers, and how wonderful the book display looked in J&G Innes…

I’m on the train to London as I write this (Monday).  Until Newcastle, Carolyn Forché was on it too – in a post-StAnza glow, despite an ankle sprain from St Andrews cobbles and a broken suitcase wrapped papoose-like in brown sticky tape.  I asked her for StAnza impressions.  She said it was one of the most wonderful festivals she’d been to.  She and several others had felt they’d read their best, drawn out by an audience invisible in the dark auditorium but palpably listening and enjoying.  The quality of participants and audiences was high; the festival was very well organised, hospitable and serious, energetic and relaxed, with a lot of kindness.  She had great regard for Eleanor.  At the workshop she’d led, every poem was publishable [but who would not bring their best to her?] 

I didn’t ask her where she got the luminous blue shoe-laces that glowed during her reading.  Or many other things.  I got her excited about the train going over the river in Newcastle – only to find out that the view happens after the station, where she got off. 

Emergency poet by day..
At each StAnza event the chair reminded us to switch off our mobile phones and fill in the questionnaire: important for the future well-being of the festival, financial and otherwise.  I was hoping someone would ask us to fill in our phones and switch off the questionnaire...  Which I completed too late – in the bar after that final reading. So I left the box for further comments blank, being poetried out and half brain dead by then but alive enough to think, The blog’s for this. 

The festival’s sense of community was one best thing – the overlapping circles of connection, the friendliness and openness.  People were very supportive of StAnza. 

..and asleep
I loved the Byre Theatre as a venue, despite Alice Notley saying she couldn’t see the audience and looking a little concerned (after which they apparently lit us up a bit, though we didn’t notice).  The memorable readings would have been so anyway, but the theatre’s steeply raked space intensified that.  Carolyn Forché and Kei Miller have been named by just about everyone I’ve asked, What did you like best?  For their poetry and presence.  In their very different ways both have honey-and-lemon, charm-and-edge voices; they read with passion. 

Miller gets the best-dressed poet prize for his reading outfit: heather cords and matching cap, a waistcoat the silvery-black of some local sand and a shirt that dazzled white under the spotlights.  But the undressed-upness of some readers was good too – no festival dress code. 

Tapsalterie at the book fair
For me and some others Alice Notley’s reading and Round Table interview were memorable too – what are festivals for, if not to introduce audiences to writers they might find challenging and hard to access?  Eleanor Livingstone invited her after hearing her read in Berlin.  StAnza’s Round Table events with an audience of a dozen or so are kept small on purpose – and the festival has resisted what must be a temptation to make them inaccessibly expensive. 

Elsewhere, Ilya Kaminsky’s reading stood out – it’s great that small UK publisher Arc has taken him on and I hope he becomes a best seller for them.

Whose stall was this?
I liked the mid-afternoon programming of events that mixed poetry with spectacle and music.  The Different Trains performance and Claire Trévien’s Shipwrecked House were both highlights at the Byre. 

I liked the festival routine of starting the day with a Poetry Café Breakfast panel discussion in the comfortable and light Studio Theatre, and agreed with the various people who’d recommended Past & Present sessions – a mix of discussion and poems, and enthusiasm shared. 

Out of all the events I went to, only a handful didn’t engage me. 

Then there were the things I missed. Performance poet Toby Campion, talent-spotted by Eleanor at a slam.  Allison McVety’s reading – I’m enjoying her recent book Lighthouses.  Past & Present on the new Penguin Russian anthology; and on Scoto-Latin poets.  Writing Motherhood with Kathryn Maris and Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  I suppose annoying programme clashes indicate a good festival; so does the pang of hearing other people enthuse about an event.  I snatched 10 minutes at the book fair, only open for a few hours, but managed longer in the wonderful new Toppings bookshop.
Crail harbour

My main regret is the people I missed or spent too little time with, and the people I might have met but didn’t because I was too busy going to events and writing.  Next visit…

The last thing is the hardest to fit into a comments box.  Before StAnza I stayed in Crail further south on the Fife coast and explored the coast path.

I was walking in bright weather – the early March sun turning everything gold or blue or green – and through a very strong wind with snow in its teeth. There were small flocks of eider ducks everywhere, bobbing roundly on the waves.  The drakes are so handsome, a black-and-white geometric design contrasting with their curves and their delicate flushes of pink and pale green. Designer birds, perhaps by Yves St-Laurent.  Sometimes they rear half-out of
Eider ducks swim away politely
the water and puff out their pinkish chests.  The females, eclipsed but elegant in tweed, look mildly impressed.  When they’re swimming further out in choppy water, eiders crane their necks (nice to be able to use that word about a bird, however uncrane-like) and their silhouette changes. 

There were lots of wader birds. A thing about them is the way they sometimes stand statue-still on rocks or sand, all facing in the same direction as if posing for a soft furnishing design. Here it was grey/brown tweed redshanks (red legs and bill), black/white oyster-catchers (pink and orange) and tweed-patterned curlews (grey-green).  Cormorants stood in a line on rocks offshore, hanging their wings out to dry; gulls caught the sun in their wings. Turnstones pecked around the edges of things.  There were rust-headed widgeon and dark velvet scoter ducks.  And swimming close to shore in a rock-sheltered inlet was a male red-breasted merganser, a large slightly grebe-shaped drake with a striking black-and-white design and rusty breast against the steely blue water, and a mohican ruffle down the back of its dark green head.  I think there was a pair of them too, far out to sea. 

So I’ll remember StAnza for what it was like to listen to poems containing sea- and shore-scapes superimposed on the Fife coast-scape that was briefly my own and in my mind’s eye all week.  

Monday, 9 March 2015

StAnza: Island poets

Sometimes the readings almost not gone to are all the more rewarding for that.  This applied to the event with Ian Stephen (Isle of Lewis) and Anna Cristina Serra (Sardinia).  Two very different island voices, soft Hebridean Scottish and Sardinian, which sounds like a buzzy Spanish/Italian mix but is apparently not understood by either.  They read in St John’s Undercroft, which is shaped like the upturned hull of a stone boat.  From Stephen’s Shiant Isles to Serra’s north wind like a headscarfed woman waving a handkerchief. 

Stephen’s books appear rarely and are hard to find – he didn’t have any on sale.  If he were an English poet, that might be problematic.  But being Scottish he’s in the Scottish Poetry Library’s wonderful archive: see here for a handful of his poems.  The SPL is currently doing an appeal for necessary expansion and community work.  You can text LEAF70 £5 to 70070 or donate online at 

Back to Saturday and the breakfast discussion panel of four island-born poets: Christine de Luca (Shetland), Kei Miller (Jamaica), Bill Manhire (New Zealand) and Kim Simonsen (Faroes).  [Would it be possible to stage a poetry event with one poet living in or close to name in the shipping forecast?] 

Festival director Eleanor Livingstone chaired the event.  She told us she’d dropped her mobile phone into her bedside glass of water the previous night.  Perhaps her subconscious was saying: It doesn’t matter any more, we’re halfway through and it’s going really well….

I’m going to do this in notes, so you can skim through and pause on anything that catches you. 

- These poets had all left their islands for some kind of larger mainland, apart from Manhire.  Some poets move the other way: Sheenagh Pugh and Jen Hadfield to Shetland, for example. 

- Growing up on an island must be like an extended goodbye because you know you’re likely to leave? (Eleanor Livingstone).  Writing is a huge compensation for the grief of having left (Christine de Luca).  Also for the guilt: writing in the Shetlandic dialect and working in schools.  She keeps Shetland close, the mixed view of sea and land she used to have is still in her mind and poems.

- Jamaica has 100 islands, and Kei Miller has only just found that out.   How islanders imagine sea: it both connects and separates them from the next piece of land.  Caribbeanness was a London invention of the 1950s, when migrants from different islands finally spoke and formed a wider identity.  The Caribbean used to be somewhere people went to or got taken to: Europeans, Africans.  Now it’s somewhere people leave.  Kingston is London, inadequately imagined; the landscape resists.  Brixton is Kingston inadequately imagined… 

- Invercargill, Bill Manhire’s birthplace at the south end of New Zealand’s South Island: “the last lamp-post in the world”.  Every street is named after a Scottish river – imagine Scottish 19th century immigrants walking along the Tay and into the Tweed, unable to go back to whichever river they knew because it was too far. 

- In the Faroes, everyone has a sea view.  As an ex-islander, Simonsen encounters geographical and cultural prejudice: people tend to assume he should be hanging off a cliff hunting seabirds rather than being a Copenhagen-based academic specialising in 19th century cultural nationalism.  He went back to the Faroes recently after 20 years: a weird experience.   

- The image projected upon Faroese and any islanders affects how they see themselves.  Rustic island Utopias go back to Odysseus.  The North used to be a place of monsters and danger but from around 1800 travellers began to visit.  This affected the locals: how to paint the landscape, for example?  The way German romantics did it, of course.  Literature and art were used to elevate the Faroes but Simonsen’s generation isn’t interested – it feels like mind control.  Memory becomes political.  

- A different way of looking at islands is that they have created their own centre of culture and development – rather than being the periphery to cities’ cultural hubs. 

- “Only the sea can greet and sing at the same time”.  (From a Christina de Luca poem; ‘greet’ means to cry.)

- Caribbean poets all live under Walcott’s shadow. Of course his poems are full of sea and it’s everywhere in the view from his house in Trinidad.  Miller isn’t a sea writer, for him it’s the mountains of Jamaica’s interior.  There are more urgent things to write about in Jamaica, other metaphors than the sea.  Haitian saying: “Beyond the mountains are more mountains”.  

- Islands under threat: when a king wave hits Tuvalu, it now washes across the whole island, rather than going up the beach and back down.

- “I live at the edge of the universe like everyone else” (Manhire). 

- Various New Zealand literary magazines have had land or sea in their title.  But one of the best known now is called Sport.  Result: a lot of disappointed people.   

I’ll post once more about StAnza after I’ve got home.