How do I even begin to tell you how wonderful Life on Mars is? Tracy K. Smith’s poetry fills me with peace and such joy, even when she writes about how inhuman we can be.
Her poems are almost meditative — I really enjoyed slowing down and focusing on her words, their rhythm, and the overall picture of the poem before me. Part space opera, part elegy, part wartime commentary, Life on Mars exceedingly deserves the 2012 Pulitzer it received, won on Smith’s birthday, no less.
Forgive me if I quote too much.
Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That 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,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they — we — flicker in.
Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
—from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”
Smith’s father, an engineer who helped build the Hubble Telescope, inspired her love of space and of science fiction tales, and the book takes its name from another tribute to possibility, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” The book is divided into four sections: The first, all the vastness and potential of the universe; the second, the fuzzy line between life and death, between mourning and acceptance; the third, when Earth becomes a nightmare, when Earth forgets what humanity can do; and the fourth hovers dreamily between present and memory. All have elements of beauty, of grace.
What I also particularly loved about Smith’s poems was that they did not require major mental gymnastics to understand. That might sound like either a diss or an admittance of limitation on my part, but what I mean is that I don’t think poetry has to be “difficult” to be “literary.” She wants to be as clear as the day they fixed the lenses on the Hubble, unambiguous in the idea that it is amazing that people have such a great capacity for both love and violence, as though our views are Universally Important, when we are mere specks of cosmic dust. Impressive specks, surely, but small nonetheless. “Our time is brief,” she writes. “We dwindle by the day.”
I don’t want to hear their voices.
To stand sucking my teeth while they
Rant. For once, I don’t want to know
What they call truth, or what flags
Flicker from poles stuck to their roofs.
Let them wait. Lead them to the back porch
And let them lean there while the others eat.
If they thirst, give them a bucket and a tin cup.
If they’re sick, tell them the doctor’s away,
That he doesn’t treat their kind. Warn them
What kind of trouble tends to crop up
Around here after dark.
— from “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected”
Much of the political content centers around the last Bush administration, and while it is heartening to know that we are no longer under that particular variety of governmental strain, it is disheartening to see what is now happening domestically. Some days it feels like we’re pretending the fight against terrorism no longer exists, and that we’ve conveniently shoved it into an invisible computer program — always running, and little progress being made while soldiers continue to die. Believe me, I’m glad that we’ve mostly moved beyond the “Freedom Fries” stage, but in the absence of Patriot Profiteering, those same people have moved onto rekindling the war against anything that isn’t a rich, white, straight man. The same people who were fine with prisoner torture now want to redefine rape and redefine a “person,” and all manner of other unsettling things. You don’t need me to tell you — the news brings another WTF-story or twelve every day.
All this time, we’ve been a country — been a planet — and this is how far we’ve come? No wonder we turn to the movies, to television. No wonder we want The Doctor to show us the edges of time, and we want the Battlestar fleet to survive. Captain Kirk kisses green women with ease, and why not have a best friend who is a 7 foot tall Wookiee? For all our struggles, and for all the fictional struggles we watch, at least we can temporarily remind ourselves: “The human race will continue, despite this present ridiculousness.”
Yes, I find solace in Tracy K. Smith’s writing. Reading her words, I am at once thinking of nothing else, yet everything else. The radio dial is gone, and it’s all flooding in. We can be so much more.
This review originally appeared at Glorified Love Letters.