For Those “End of Days” Days (aka After Reading The News)
Recommending Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is not a revelation. Smith has been US Poet Laureate since 2017, and this particular collection won the 2012 Pulitzer in poetry. You could probably figure this one out. And yet, in this moment – as an anti-science, fear-driven climate settles over our country and casts a shadow over the world – Smith’s stunning, stargazing verse delivers moments that border on transcendent.
So many of those entrenched in today’s online vitriol don’t have the words to understand their anger, or their fear. Poetry communicates the pains that connect us, and those that isolate us. It airs the things that hurt without our understanding why. And it even makes such pains beautiful––like a bruise blossoming or a far-off star burning. Poetry articulates the things we don’t know we feel until we have read them through an image, a moment, or a phrase-captured feeling. We are told what to think so often these days that it is a quiet relief to feel the opposite taking place, to learn from the inside out.
Poetry is also private; words chiseled into something precise, complex. It is vehemently intentional, not spewed while stopped at a traffic light or in line at the grocery store. Poetry, in short, is the opposite of Twitter. There is something soothing, then, in reading Tracy K. Smith in this moment; to linger where consideration is given to every word, every choice. Where the weight words have accrued through history are in fact tools of the poet, not to be denied in press conferences.
Though this collection was first published in 2011, poems like “The Weather in Space” resonate deeply after the last two years. Anyone who has attended a march or protest would recognize such “faces radiant with panic” as we are confronted, one day after another, with losing things about our country that we loved without knowing, depended on without worry.
from “The Weather in Space”
Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we’re certain to lose, so alive —
Faces radiant with panic.
Finding a collection of poetry that veers into the speculative feels empowering. This fusion of science and the arts is ripe and exhilarating, like witnessing reason electrified with humanity. In “Sci-Fi”, Smith uses simplicity – and moreover, the language of reassurance – to invoke the sense of a foreboding future and thus makes the reader question their very notion of progress. By leaving no space in the language for doubt, Smith infuses that into the gaps between her stanzas, which ooze with uncertainty and hum with the bleakness of this future – and what else, or who else, might have been left out.
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
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 a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Life on Mars grapples with the expanse of the universe, as Tracy K. Smith is the daughter of an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and wrote the collection in the wake of his death. From the start, Smith shifts our focus outwards and upwards, writing into an expanse we don’t understand, and with a speculative eye that opens yours to an intangible humanity. In making our universe newly strange – allowing earthly issues to float, untethered, in space –she makes sense of it again.
In “Solstice”, Smith chronicles the systematic gassing of nuisance geese near JFK, then expands the fallout to question the nature of protest, of responsibility.
Remember how they taught you once to pray?
Eyes closed, on your knees, to any god?
Sometimes, small minds seem to take the day.
Throughout Life on Mars, Smith fuses the smallest most human moments with the great unknown, and while religion peppers the lines, she treats any mention of godliness with equal attention to nature, opening worship to any higher power, to the world and natural forces that unite us all.
Life on Mars is broken into four sections, and while it feels a crime to simplify them in any way, Part 1 begins with an upwards, forward gaze to the universe and the future, with all its speculative inclinations; Part 2 takes on grief, losing her father; Part 3, the darkness that fills the cracks in our society; and Part 4, everyday pleasures that ground us to earth. The collection borrows titles and references throughout from 2001: A Space Odyssey (both Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Kubrick’s film) and David Bowie, the Starman himself, cementing Smith’s place in the galactic canon.
Smith doesn’t shy away from the reality of particularly American traumas, and there is a catharsis, perhaps, in seeing this reality finally igniting (parts of) a nation into action, since 2011. Smith captures this sense of forgotten lives in “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” in which victims of hate crimes and gun violence are named and then given voice, even from death. Smith manages the impossible in many ways, by reconciling these personal, individual experiences with the vastness of a space that both calms and instructs.
In “My God, it’s Full of Stars” Smith again explores the expanse of the universe, humanity, and legacy, which seems aggressive for one poem and yet she tackles it with precision:
… 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.
She even supposes the ability to bend time in a later passage that resonates with anyone who has ever lost someone or some thing, or simply seen Interstellar:
… 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.
“The Speed of Belief” takes on Smith’s father’s death, the passage of time, and spirituality. And “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” is perhaps the best portrait of celebrity I’ve read.
To be US Poet Laureate in 2018, tasked with spreading poetry to the public at a time when our leaders throw around words with disregard not just for their truth, but for their implications, feels a vital and grave responsibility. Has there been a time we needed poetry more? When smoldering embers from history seem ready to ignite at a word. Poets understand how placing a verb in passive voice can be a violent act; robbing a person of agency. Poets give proper care not just to word’s meaning but to their matter. Aren’t these questions of language also the ones we are answering on a national and global level?
Before picking up Life on Mars, I hadn’t noticed how fearful I was lately from reading irresponsibly chosen language everywhere, how tense a reader this has made me. Take comfort in the total care Tracy K. Smith gives to each word, and in her intentionality that breeds responsibility.
In addition to being beautiful, riveting and eye-opening, this collection is also the antidote to the idea that poetry is inaccessible, or to someone who claims they just “don’t get it.” Life on Mars is visceral and urgent; it zeroes in on the tiniest moments on earth and then shoots you out into space, and future times.
We are becoming a national of smallness, not intimacy. Life on Mars gives us intimacy but then expands it to the stars. Tracy K. Smith allows us to look at ourselves, in the tiny moments she uses to connect our present to past and foreign cultures, uniting the desires that make us human. She summons familiar sensations that inspire nostalgia and connection, and then by showing us the expanse of such intimacy — she sets our smallness into gravity.