Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Poetry: Life on MarsTracy 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.

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

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Poetry: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her 2018 collection of poems Wade in the Water  is her first collection since earning that distinction. The title poem of Wade in the Water tells a story:

One of the women greeted me.

I love you, she said. She didn’t

Know me, but I believed her

……………………….

I love you in the water

Where they pretended to wade,

Singing that old blood-deep song

That dragged us to those banks

And cast us in.

 

This may be a reference to the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which repeats the chorus,

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children,

Wade in the water.

God’s gonna trouble the water.

 

Like the spiritual, the poems of Wade in the Water speak to the longing and pain of a people familiar with oppression. Smith’s mother was a devoutly Christian woman, very religious in her practice. Smith’s father worked on Hubble space telescope. With one foot in the sciences, one foot in faith, and firmly rooted in the African-American experience, Smith’s poems expose a world of hurt and longing, a world of hope tempered by experience with regret. The woman who greeted her with “I love you” appeared to mean it. The speaker believed it. Yet it goes on to say that this greeting’s result was “a terrible new ache/Rolled over in my chest…she continued/Down the hall past other strangers,/Each feeling pierced suddenly/By pillars of heavy light.” Love, real love, unconditional, freely given love, warmly and openly gifted, yet opening a wound in the recipient who knows that the vulnerability love requires exposes a lifetime of hurt.

 

Wade in the Water is separated into four sections. The first set (which include the titular poem) have a strong spiritual and cosmological bent to them. Poems titled “Garden of Eden,” “The Angels,” “Realm of Shades” hint at the deeper perspective. These poems talk about God, about “the holy,” about angels, not in a sense necessarily recognized (or likely approved) by any specific denomination, but more about the acknowledgment of a world beyond the visible. These are not church-lady poems, intended to celebrate faith or reinforce commitment. These poems acknowledge ugliness in this world and see God more as a curious but ultimately disinterested observer of the earth and the human condition, mildly appalled and disgusted sometimes but not involved or willing to participate in the squalor he sees.

 

The second set are historically based “erasure poems.” These poems take historical American documents, including the Declaration of Independence and several letters from black Civil War soldiers and veterans, and “erase” parts of them to put them into poetic form. In some ways, these poems seemed to be the most personal. Highlighting phrases from Jefferson’s declaration gives them new visibility and power, and in this context reminds us that although those words speak eloquently to the plight of all oppressed peoples, they were written by a man who owned slaves and sold his own children borne by the slave he repeatedly raped.

 

The third set is more contemporary and overtly political, giving voice to ongoing pain experienced by people today. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” opens with the powerful lines, “Our bodies run with ink dark blood./ Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.” “Watershed” looks like it may be a hybrid poem including erasures from DuPont Chemical memos and legal briefs, telling the effects of corporate indifference to the poisoning of people and animals by their products. I suspect the lawyers and corporate officials who wrote those messages did not realize how poetic or how prophetic their words would become.

 

The final set seems more personal, including a beautiful tribute called “4 ½” to a child who reminds me of many other 4 ½ year olds I’ve met. Delightful, exasperating, whimsical and serious, this child clearly brings delight and mirth simply by being. These poems do not avoid broader themes, but they bring those themes home to the experience of the individual.

 

Smith’s poems are beautiful. They reflect a world that is not always beautiful, that is often ugly and cruel and capricious and evil. The reflect a failure of institutions, of governments, of corporations, and of the supernatural to protect the defenseless. Indeed, far too often they oppress the very people they claim to serve. But in revealing these scars on our history and on our society, Smith gives voice and meaning to those who’ve endured them. Her topics may not be beautiful, but her poetry is. Wade in the Water troubles the waters, revealing depths in both the subject matter and the poet.

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Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith