LitStack Rec: How to Grow Old Disgracefully & Life on Mars

Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith

In honor of National Poetry Month, my recommendation this week is for one of the volumes of poetry that has really made an impression on me.

Educated at Harvard and Columbia, nurtured at Stanford and currently teaching at Princeton, you might expect Tracy K. Smith’s poetry to be high strung and exclusive.  But as the daughter of a space engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope, instead her poems are full of wonder and a sense that we are a part of something so much larger than ourselves, not only cosmically, but internally and spiritually as well.

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.

The poems in Life on Mars are personal even while the subject matter is elevated (but not elite).  Ms. Smith’s poems encompass what most of us would talk about at a Sunday brunch among friends:  family, space, love, injustice, pop culture, news headlines – even pirates.  Real, modern day pirates.

They have guns.  They know the sea like it
Is their mother, and she is not well.  Her fish
Are gone.  She heaves barrels leaking disease
Onto the shores.  When she goes into a fit,

She throws a curse upon the land, dragging
Houses, people to their deaths.  She glows
In a way she should not.  She tastes of industry.
No one is fighting for her, and so they fight.

Ok, a very intense Sunday brunch.

In a series of poignant poems (entitled “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected”, a quote taken from the “Community Rule” teaching from the Dead Sea Scrolls), she takes five news reports from the New York Times from May to June 2009 where there has been a tragic and senseless death, and treating them sometimes objectively, and sometimes in a very gut-wrenching way, with  the victims writing postcards to their killers.  Another poem seeringly takes on prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, evoking words spoken by both a US Senator and pundit Rush Limbaugh, blending them into a scathing poetic narrative:

Some of the prisoners were strung like beef
From the ceilings of their cells.  “Gus”
Was led around on a leash.  I mean dragged.
Others were ridden like mules.  The guards
Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.
I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.

These are powerful poems, ones that beg to be read and digested, spanning the expanse of space, taking what is wide and vast and making it graspable.  These are poems to be read under the stars, with David Bowie playing in the background.  These are marvelous poems.  These poems embrace the unknown, and laugh – sometimes in harsh irony, sometimes in joy.

—Sharon Browning

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