Tracy K. Smith: Life on Mars

Tracy K. Smith talks death, outer space, and David Bowie in her Pulitzer Prize Winning collection.

Life on Mars:  Poems.  Tracy K. Smith.  Graywolf, 2011. ISBN:  978-1-55597-584-5

$10.20 at Amazon

88 pages

by Alex Ashford

Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is described by New York Times writer Dan Chiasson as a “wild, far-ranging elegy for [her father} that evokes the “shared situation of poets and astronomers, squinting to glimpse immensity.” Smith’s previous efforts, Duende  and The Body’s Question, are both prize winners:  Duende winning the James Laughlin Award in Poetry, and The Body’s Question, winning the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, an award recognizing exceptional work by a first time African American author.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Smith’s third effort, Life on Mars, won the 2012 Pulitizer Prize in Poetry.

Thirty-three free verse poems, Smith’s prize-winning collection opens with a single poem as its epigraph:  “The Weather in Space.” The other thirty-two poems are divided into four sections, simply named “one,” “two,” “three,” and “four.” For a collection that won a prize as prestigious as the Pulitzer, there are no fancy stanza arrangements; no epigraphs from other poems; no lack of punctuation.  In fact, in form, the poems are surprisingly traditional.  The first word of each line of each poem is capitalized—a mechanic long forsaken by poets like Lucille Clifton and W.S Merwin.  What is non-traditional about these poems, however, is their subject matter.  The poems describe an almost psychedelic existence—almost like everything about the world has been turned inside out.  But it is “life on Mars,” right?

The opening poem, “The Weather in Space” reads:  “Is God being, or pure force?  The wind / Or what commands it?” (1-2). This wide- eyed, many times ambivalent questioning of God and the universe governs the entire book.  The first section could be read topically as a series of philosophical wanderings about how the universe works, how big and small it is at once.  As might be expected of a poet of her stature, Smith condenses the gist of these wanderings in her poem, “It & Co,” in which the speaker brainstorms about what IT (the universe?) really is.  At the end, the speaker comes down to one conclusion:  “It is like some novels:  Vast and unreadable” (13-14).

Part two begins with the seven page poem “The Speed of Belief,” a memorial to Smith’s father. The poem is divided into seven un-numbered sections, each itself a step closer, hopefully, to letting her father go, making sense of it all.  In lines like:  “I didn’t want to wait on my knees / in a room made quiet by waiting,” Smith not only references the gradual death of her father and “a room where we’d listen for the rise / Of breath, the burble in his throat,” but a deepening of herself—a need, now more than ever, to search out what death is, what it means, this thing that has happened to her father. In the end, she concludes:

I didn’t want to believe

What we believe in those rooms

That we are blessed, letting go,

Letting someone, anyone,

Drag open the drapes and heave us

Back into our blinding, bright lives.

It is not until the third section that we see the title poem, “Life on Mars,” a nine-section poem whose title was borrowed from David Bowie’s 1971 song of the same name.  There are also several other Bowie references, including the poems “Savior Machine,” and “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes” (the first, named after Bowie’s “Saviour Machine”; the second, a quote from his song “Sound and Vision).  By the fourth section, the universe has gone from being a “house party” in the first section to a “primal scream.”  In the poem “The Universe as a Primal Scream,” the speaker, who has been so militant in her wanderings, seems to concede to its “unknowable-ness,” almost longing for it to take her over completely.  The text reads:  “I’m ready / To meet what refuses to let us keep anything / for long” (21-22).

As a skilled poet would, the final poem, “U.S & Co,” is a compromise with grief—with the beyond, whatever the hell it is.  In a collection of long poems, this one is the second shortest of the entire collection (the longest being the very first poem “The Weather in Space”).  “We are here for what amounts to a few hours / a day at most,” the speaker says.  And it is here, at the end of the collection, that Smith stops building the image of life and death as entities as foreign and impenetrable as outer space and brings them down to earth.  She says, “We feel around making sense of the terrain, / our own new limbs, / bumping up against a herd of bodies / until one becomes home” (3-6).  The answer then becomes simpler:  We are already what we’re searching for:  home.

In Life on Mars, Smith tackles the “unknowable terrains” of life, death, birth, and love—those things that, like outer space, we know so very little about.  And in the words of the final two lines of the collection, “Moments sweep past.  The grass bends / then learns again to stand.”  Perhaps Smith wants us to see that the inscrutable things are not to be feared at all—but searched out.  Questioned.  Even conquered.