Four Reasons You Should Read Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars”04/23/2012
Last week the Pulitzer committee chose Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars for its poetry prize. Not only was the award the most distinguished recognition of Smith’s poetry yet, it was also the first given to a book published by our friends at Graywolf Press. This week we present four reasons why we think you should read Life on Mars, an ambitious collection that zooms from the alien ends of the universe to the familiar trappings of the bedroom.
1. Life on Mars is poetry for science fiction fans.
Poetry can’t breathe in the vacuum of space. True, a handful of science fiction authors have illustrated the wonder of the final frontier in language with more art and subtlety than a laser cannon. Ray Bradbury’s wide-eyed tales of hard-scrabble existence on Mars’ surface come to mind, as do C.S. Lewis’ curious expeditions to an Edenic imagining of Venus. But on the whole the prose of the science-fiction canon is deader than moon rock. Smith makes our technofuture sing with the speculative promise of a not-yet-dashed hope and the comfortable foresight of prophecy. In the collection’s lead poem, “Sci-Fi,” she articulates the sustaining human desire to simply exist:
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.
2. Smith’s fascination with infinity—and her attempts to come to terms with her own posterity within that space—is captivating.
As Smith’s poetics coast through the solar system and beyond, the dread feeling that the universe is heedlessly expanding is inescapable. And for every lightyear the universe swells, the individual shrinks a little more, withers further into insignificance. The empty, intergalactic doldrums in Smith’s poems are littered with the dross of all creation—strewn with the litter of dead civilizations, dead stars, and an absentee God. What is the value of this fleeting life in the context of cosmic indifference, Smith seems to ask. In one particularly memorable passage from “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she compares the whole of human experience to the comings and goings in a small town library:
Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.
3. Although a stargazer, Smith is grounded in visceral reality.
Smith is lost in space in the first section of Life on Mars, but she returns to an equally mysterious landscape for the book’s remainder: the terrain of human struggle. Her treatment of desire, trauma, and death serves as a stark counterpoint to the expansive writing of the opening poems. The wiles and worries of a capricious universe, she shows, are quickly forgotten when an “industrious tongue whispers / convincingly into your mouth” or the death of a loved one freezes time. In “The Speed of Belief,” Smith describes the peculiar sensations (or, rather, lack thereof) after her father’s passing:
You stepped out of the body.
Unzipped it like a coat.
And will it drag you back
As flesh, voice, scent?
What heat burns without touch,
And what does it become?
What are they that move
Through these rooms without even
The encumbrance of shadows?
4. Independent publishers like Graywolf are devoted to sharing well-wrought, fully realized, distinguished books.
We salute Graywolf, one of the best independent houses in the book business, for fearlessly publishing unsung voices and exceptional literature. Although it’s impossible to entirely sever the artistic ideals of a publisher from the commercial realities of the book industry, a nonprofit organization like Graywolf (or Milkweed Editions) takes the time and effort to distinguish their titles from the pulp weighing down bookstore shelves. What you get—as is the case with Life on Mars—are smart, inventive, unforgettable books.
If you’ve read Life on Mars, please share the lines and ideas most memorable to you below.