Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
Poetry: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
A few years ago I found a courage I did not know I had. I began questioning things I had always assumed were true. I began exploring my assumptions, opening my mind to new approaches and no longer accepting things at face value. It was frightening, even terrifying, and I came out the other side of it a very different person in some ways.
In other ways, though, I remained unchanged. I decided that I had been right about some things and wrong about others. More committed to my wife, more in love with my children, and more true to myself, I found that asking the questions gave me greater confidence in the answers. I did not find all of the answers. Some I never will. But I found that I respected the person asking the questions much more than the person who refused to face the possibility that he had been wrong.
Poetry asks these brutal, core, fundamental questions in ways that other literature seldom does. That is not to say it never does: a great novel or even a short story can also ask questions. But usually stories try to give answers. Poetry asks questions. Who or what is God? Is there a God/god? What is death? What comes next? Sometimes poems will suggest answers. More often, though, they allow the reader to experience the quest of the questions. Come with me. Look with me. Ask with me. Be exposed with me. Let’s dare to examine what matters together.
There are not many who ask these questions more beautifully than Tracy K. Smith. Her collection of poems Life on Mars asks many of these questions. Some of the poems were written after the death of her father–one is specifically dedicated to him. They ask cosmic questions. Sometimes the topics are literally about the cosmos: dark matter, space, life on other planets. Sometimes the topics are inspired by a curiosity for both science and song–David Bowie makes an appearance in the poems. Sometimes they are about more spiritual matters: God, the afterlife, the spirit. Often, these disparate topics are woven together beautifully and skillfully, bringing both smiles and tears, gasps of recognition and gasps of shock.
Smith compares the connections between people to dark matter: invisible, immeasurable, yet a force that cannot be denied. No one really understands either. They are observable only in the sense that we see their effects. She compares God to the weather in space–is God the force we experience or the power behind that force? Smith concludes that poem with “we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive–/Faces radiant with panic.” That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Somehow, I think that Smith and Dillard are traveling along similar paths, asking questions of the divine that we should all be asking–questions that we should all be afraid both of asking and of having answered.
Smith’s poem dedicated to her father is wrenching in its poignancy. Wrenching in a very different way, another painful poem is written as a series of letters from murder victims to their murderers. She also writes in reference to Abu Ghraib. Smith is willing to look deeply at the pain that we carry as individuals, as a culture, as a people, and cut into that pain in hopes of excising some of the rotting flesh that causes it. Whether that pain is simply the pain of loss of a loved one, the pain of a culture that accepts murder as a series of acceptable losses, or a culture that excuses torture when it’s done by “us,” Smith writes about it unflinchingly. Although loss will always be part of the human condition, I can only hope she has fewer opportunities to write about the darker aspects of America in the future. Sadly, I don’t think she will.
Life on Mars is beautiful, moving, and compelling. A master work that won the Pulitzer Prize when it was published, Smith has captured the pulse of what makes us human, and captured the longing we have for something greater.