Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars

Life on MarsLife on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This celebrated 2011 volume from the current U.S. poet laureate is her elegy for her father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble telescope.

Your context changes how you read any given book, and I was reading this in the context of course on contemporary American literature, wherein it struck me as the first and only text we read—whether in poetry, prose, or comics, whether by writers male, female, gay, straight, black, white, Native American or Asian American—to present a non-apocalyptic view of science and technology. That Smith’s father was a working scientist probably led her away from the panic of an Allen Ginsberg staring down “Moloch” or the nostalgia of a Toni Morrison missing the emotional intensities of prewar neighborhood life, but I also imagine Smith’s literary influences must have had something to do with it too; in this book, she alludes often to cinematic science fiction, and in interviews she has named Emily Dickinson as an early inspiration. It was Dickinson who wrote:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see,—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

So with the microscope, as with the telescope; what is disclosed by technology is just another look at ourselves. Smith writes at the conclusion of her much-heralded poem, “My God It’s Full of Stars”:

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.

Note how Smith plays with scale, moving effortlessly from microcosm to macrocosm and back again. The first half of the volume is a somewhat rarefied affair, an investigation of death and loss in the context of what we know or can fathom about the cosmos, and grounded by Smith’s grief. It is good, if sometimes slightly ponderous, philosophical or metaphysical verse—though sometimes a pleasant wit intrudes, as when Smith mocks the “cowboys-in-space” approach to the universe of science fiction cinema and even imagines herself in conversation with Charlton Heston:

Hero, survivor, God’s right hand man, I know he sees the blank
Surface of the moon where I see a language built from brick and bone.
He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,

Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth. And:
May I smoke? The voices outside soften. Planes jet past heading off or back.
Someone cries that she does not want to go to bed. Footsteps overhead.

A fountain in the neighbor’s yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors. It was another time, he says, picking up again.
We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth

Toward God-knows-where? I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.

I admire the delicacy here; she mocks the white man’s senescent conservatism, even while knowing time will leave everyone behind—that in a sense everyone might well become the dead white male. The solution to which problem is, in the final line’s wavering between description and injunction, to get used to the fact of our ignorance and evanescence.

The volume’s second poem, “Sci-Fi,” suggests a governing ethic to Smith’s speculations when it envisions a techno-utopia on an intergenerational starship:

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned

To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.

Developing such hints, the second half of the book finds Smith in a more political mood. As David Bowie described the topic of his song, “Life on Mars,” from which Smith derives her title, as “a sensitive young girl reacts to the news,” so we find our sensitive poet—though she obviously does not portray herself as a “young girl”—writing her way through the worst media reports of the early 21st century, from the fallout of 9/11 to the sensationalist reporting on Somali pirates to the horrifying Josef Friztl case. The latter is described in the grand title poem, which posits the supposed “dark matter” of the physicists—the invisible stuff responsible for the universe’s excessive mass—to be what an older tradition called “evil.” Sometimes, though, Smith risks sentimentality, as in “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” wherein she imagines real-life victims of racist violence writing their assailants from the afterlife and urging the transcendence of hate:

Dear Andrew,

I’m still here. I don’t think of you often, but when I do, I think you must look at people slowly, spinning through the versions of their lives before you speak. I think you must wonder what’s under their coats, in their fists, what words sit warming in their throats. I think you feel humble, human. I hardly think of you, but when I do, it’s usually that.

Harlem, USA

The interior rhyme even in prose is nice, as is the wordplay: “must” signals both what Omar imagines has become Andrew’s habit and what Omar believes Andrew is obligated to do, appropriate in either case since the white man Andrew mistook the black man Omar as a threat and murdered him, due to a killing lack of “looking at people slowly.” Still, Smith’s appropriation of actual murder victims is tasteless. How does she know their spirits have gone beyond hate and are now full of wise counsel? Maybe they’re full of vengeful rage!

My favorite poem in the volume’s political vein is the villanelle “Solstice,” a rhyming, rhythmic collage of bad news that is also slightly arch, as villanelles tend to be; as you know, I am a bad person, so I sometimes want Smith to be saved from the pomp of the public poet lamenting the faults of the nation, and this poem, with its slight Dickinsonian jaunt (I am oddly reminded, too, of Seidel) in the contemplation of brutality, does the job nicely:

They’re gassing geese outside of JFK.
Tehran will likely fill up soon with blood
The Times is getting smaller day by day.

We’ve learned to back away from all we say
And, more or less, agree with what we should.
Whole flocks are being gassed near JFK.

So much of what we’re asked is to obey—
A reflex we’d abandon if we could.
The Times reported 19 dead today.

They’re going to make the opposition pay.
(If you’re sympathetic, knock on wood.)
The geese were terrorizing JFK.

Remember how they taught you once to pray?
Eyes closed, on your knees, to any god?
Sometimes, small minds seem to take the day.

Election fraud. A migratory plague.
Less and less surprises us as odd.
We dislike what they did at JFK.
Our time is brief. We dwindle by the day.

As that old fascist Yeats said, cautioning against free verse, “all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” But why go further afield than Smith’s own earliest influence? “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true—”

If in the first half of the book, Smith portrays herself as loyal daughter, in the second half we find her as lover and mother, both things conjoined in the volume’s daring penultimate poem, “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” which pictures the soul of Smith’s unborn child watching its parents make love. This primal scene incites the soon-to-be infant’s gnostic fall into the pleasures and raptures of the flesh:

You must have watched
For what felt like forever, wanting to be
What we passed back and forth between us like fire.
Wanting weight, desiring desire, dying
To descend into flesh, fault, the brief ecstasy of being.
From what dream of world did you wriggle free?
What soared—and what grieved—when you aimed your will
At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?

I vastly prefer this visionary perversity to the sentimentality earlier in the volume. The telescopic/microscopic eye on all that is “brutal and alive” should be, I think, a dry eye, and Smith’s sensibility seems foreign to the responsibilities it sometimes take on in this volume’s political verse. The intermediate level of the life of the polis, “life on earth,” is blurred in this book, but when Smith writes above and below it, about the inner life and outer space, the infinitesimal and the infinite, she more than earns her laurel.