By: Henry Nunn
Before the book is even open, Life on Mars offers a sense of its existential heft. An image of the Cone Nebula: taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The turbulent mass of gas and dust has the potential to produce stars and planets—perhaps, to produce life. In her third collection of poetry, Tracy K. Smith explores grief and what it means to be human through a masterful conceit of space. She honors the life of her father, Floyd William Smith, who worked as an engineer on the Hubble Telescope. She questions the nature of God—a nature that seems to be shared with humanity. She celebrates the otherworldly zest of David Bowie and pries at the overstimulating political and social fabrics of the 21st century. She ponders reincarnation through the immutable laws of energy and mass conservation. By the book’s end, the reader is able to share in the cosmic tension one experiences looking into endless space, overcome by the fundamental paradoxes of existence and time’s inescapable transformations. And yet, there is still hope to enjoy life as simply as we sometimes know it to be.
“The Weather in Space”, the collection’s opening poem, introduces the final frontier as a metaphor to signify a state of being, a state of mind—a place of perpetual suspense and possibility, and yet emptiness. In the collection’s elegies to Smith’s father, such a representation of grief is especially compelling. While there is no “weather” as we know it in outer space, solar winds, magnetic fields, and other extraterrestrial phenomena are frequently referred to as space weather. These unpredictable behaviors caused by the Sun move the speaker to reflect on her life: “When the storm/ Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing…/”. This sense of awe, and perhaps fear, in the face of forces beyond control seems to be embraced, or at least appreciated, by the speaker in the final lines of the poem: “After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—/ Faces radiant with panic.”
In “Solstice”, the speaker turns her cosmic lens to the United States. The title’s lack of specificity is worth noticing. Is this is the longest or shortest day of the year—the brightest or the darkest? The villanelle addresses the gassing of geese that were interfering with flights to and from the JFK International Airport in New York City and the protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Ultimately, the poet uses the intertwining form to muddy the speaker’s perspective and overwhelm the reader: “So much of what we’re asked is to obey—/ A reflex we’d abandon if we could./ The Times reported 19 dead today.” At this point in the poem, the reader is unclear whether the “19 dead” refer to the geese or to people killed in the protests in Iran. This confusion is intentional; the poet wants to highlight the effects of humanity’s extraordinary leaps in technology and political investments on the everyday citizen. The speaker seems to fight against this apparently unstoppable progress but is unsuccessful. “We dislike what they did at JFK./ Our time is brief. We dwindle by the day.”
The range of subject matter in this collection is staggering. The existential poems are balanced by a lightness that can be found in various David Bowie cameos (e.g. “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”—in fact, the title of the collection is taken from Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?”) and references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that lightness does not compromise the dignity or emotion of the collection. Smith crafts an impressive balance of emotion and enlightenment with such a technical prowess and raw artistic talent—it is no surprise that she is the current Poet Laureate of the United States.
Life on Mars was originally published in 2011 and received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012. One of those genuine examples of greatness, it is a collection that stands out among other collections of the 21st century for its potent imagination, technical brilliance, and visceral emotion. It is a rare work of genius that is accessible to readers of all backgrounds and interests.