She had me at the first Bowie reference.
Of everyone on my list for this “Year of Poetry” Tracy K. Smith is the poet with the most recent birthday …at least so far, and her 2011 collection Life on Mars feels both modern and marvelous and like the kind of book that will be read in forty years in the same way we read Alice Walker’s or Langston Hughes’ early poetry collections today.
Life on Mars is divided into four sections, each with its own flavor and all with the confident verse of a gifted poet. Smith’s voice is at turns strong, whimsical, agonizing, and willing to dive into any abyss, be that outer space or something inside the human heart (or maybe both at once).
In the first section Smith’s verse reads like one of the mid 20th century science fiction authors she references, touching on dystopia in poems like “SCI-FI” in which she imagines a world gone strange:
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced by nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.”
Later in the poem, Smith gets to the natural end of a progression like the one she has described “…for all, scrutable and safe.” Two words that read like an insult to good poetry.
But Smith’s poems push beyond scrutable and safe. In the long poem “My God, Its Full of Stars” Smith acknowledges the standard metaphors for understanding life around us (“some like to imagine / A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars”), nodding to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and settling on her father’s work on the Hubble Telescope for perspective on the scope of our lives on this planet. It is perspective to give pause, and Smith allows us to pause with her in this opening section as she spins through a philosophical investigation of (to use a title from one of her poems) “a largeness we can’t see.”
Kubrick and artists like him can help us on our way, she seems to suggest; art is another telescope to truth, and maybe we ought to see, as she does in “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” the metaphor not as a cosmic mother or father, but “…something elemental. Not God, exactly, more like / Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being.”
Memories moving to the man with the red hair in the suit a lighter blue than his eye shadow, I’m in for that. But as present as he is in Life on Mars, Bowie isn’t the man who looms largest over this collection.
Section two contains the extended elegy “The Speed of Belief” addressed to Smith’s father, who we met in the first section of the book lighting his pipe, reading Larry Niven, and helping create our clearest window into deep space, the Hubble Telescope.
If I were a teacher of poetry I’d use “The Speed of Belief” in class to show a virtuoso presenting seven pages in seven styles, from free verse to a sonnet, in service of celebrating a life while reflecting on relationships and the broader human condition poets have been speaking to for centuries. Smith does it brilliantly, her rhyme and meter at its most polished in this section, her purpose at its most focused.
More than simply reflecting on her own grief at her father’s passing, Smith slides into a remembrance of her father experiencing his father’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
And finished the toast bits with jam
And the cold eggs, the thick bacon
Flanged in fat, savoring the taste.”
The poet, squarely sitting in her father’s place of grief, continues with the childhood memory, tracing her father’s leaving for a week, and her family sitting at that kitchen table:
We bowed our heads and prayed
You’d come back safe,
Knowing you would.”
And Smith, in this poem still sitting in her father’s place, will too. The second section ends with “It’s Not,” a poem twisting the notion of death presented in this section as a closing couplet might a sonnet.
Twists and turns are part of Life on Mars, and in the final two sections of the book Smith turns her attention to matters as diverse as dark matter, love, and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
“Who understand the world?” she asks in the poem “Life on Mars” and “when / Will he make it make sense? Or She?” By these third and fourth sections we are miles away from the “scrutable and safe” dystopia of the opening poems, no less tragic, but certainly inscrutable and unsafe.
Smith makes that tragedy concrete in “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All He Has Rejected,” a poem chronicling a series of violent anti-Semitic, racist, and hate filled events from 2009. Poems like these are hard to read, or better put an emotional bludgeoning important to read. If poetry is a means by which we understand our world, writers like Tracy K. Smith are the philosopher-poets who will help us with that comprehension.
In Life on Mars, however, much of that understanding, such as it is, comes through the heart more than the head.
Tina says we do it to one another, every day,
Knowing and not knowing. When it is love,
What happens feels like dumb luck. When it’s not,
We’re riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks.”
Dumb luck and dead ducks, Life on Mars looks at life as unflinchingly as the Hubble Telescope views the universe.
This isn’t accidental; Smith tells her readers early in the collection:
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 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…”
This was my first reading of Life on Mars, but it most certainly won’t be my last. Tracy K. Smith is a poet who makes sense of the bedlam, open to everything, able to seal up what she needs to and release truth, not simply let it escape. If you’re interested in poetry, and you’re someone who keeps David Bowie in your heart, Life on Mars should be on your playlist.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with In Praise of Darkness by Jorge Luis Borges.