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.
No children to carry our names. No grief. Life will be a brief, hollow walk.
But where does all he knew – and all he must now know – walk?
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.