Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith
After reading Tracy K. Smith’s eloquent open letter on LitHub to her fellow Black Americans, I thought I would go back and revisit the work that introduced me to her back in 2012: her Pulitzer Prize winning poetry
collection, Life on Mars, and it was as delightful reading it in 2020 as it was eight years ago.
Educated at Harvard and Columbia, nurtured at Stanford, currently teaching at Princeton – and after coming off a stint of being honored as Poet Laureate of the United States! – 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, her poems are instead full of wonder and a sense that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves, cosmically, internally, spiritually.
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.
Not only are her poems personal (such as one about a patient observing her psychologist) but her subject matter, unlike so many other collections, is elevated without being elite. Her poems encompass what most of us would talk about at a Sunday brunch among friends: family, space, love, injustice, pop culture, news headlines – and even pirates. Not the Disney version, the real-life pirates who make a living off those who make a living from the seas. She uses the medium of words and meter and lilt to go right to the heart of the matter, rather than dancing at the edges.
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, maybe what most of us would talk about at a very intense Sunday brunch.
In a series of very poignant poems entitled “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected”, she takes five news reports from the New York Times wherein there has been a tragic and senseless death, and treats at them in a very precious and fragile and gut-wrenching way: the victims write 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. Both personal and cosmic, spanning the expanse of space, taking what is wide and vast and making it graspable – these are not poems to read while sipping wine and nibbling brie as a string quartet plays in the background. These are poems to be read under the stars, with David Bowie playing in the background. These poems embrace the unknown, and laugh – sometimes in irony, sometimes in joy. They are well worth the time, even if you aren’t quite sure if poetry is your thing. No worries there. Take it from me – these are.