Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

by Roxanna Bennett
While the judges couldn't agree on a fiction submission worthy of a Pulitzer Prize this year, finding a recipient for the poetry prize was an easier task. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith's third collection of poetry, was described by the Pulitzer committee as "a collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain."

Inspired in part by her father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope, Life on Mars moves from the dailiness of Earth to the unknowable reaches of space.  David Bowie, Charlton Heston, and God take equal place among the work, enigmatic figures, like aliens, a possibility allowed for in a Universe that seems indifferent to its inhabitants. Smith questions for us, puts into words the nag in the belly of the human race.  In 'Don't You Wonder, Sometimes', she writes:

"And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?"

Smith's poems on death, elegies to her father, are concise, tender without sentimentality. From 'The Speed of Belief' a series of linked poems in part two of the book:

"You stepped out of the body.
Unzipped it like a coat.
And will it drag you back
As flesh, voice, scent?"

Divided in four parts, it's the third section of the book with the title poem, that is the knock-out punch of the collection.  Overall this is a solid collection of poems but ones that I would consider good, not great, until reading Life on Mars.  A moving, complex piece that combines familial relationships, real-world news, quantum physics and the question, the question that runs through all of Smith's work, who watches, who sees, who understands the world and all of its madness, and who are we, inside of it all? This is a dizzying work that bears re-reading, deceptively simple in its language, towering in concept.  The idea of family, those bound by blood, those bound by fear.

"what if dark matter is like space between people
When what holds them together isn't exactly love, and I think
That sounds right–how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won't let you drift apart so easily"

Smith writes about the man who kept his daughter locked in a basement cell her entire life, raping her, forcing her to bear his children.  She writes about this horror unflinchingly.

"They cursed him to his back. He didn't hear.
They begged him for air, and all he saw were bodies on their knees.
How close that room. What heat. And his wife upstairs, hearing
Their clamor underfoot, thinking the house must just be

Settling itself with age."

It is a distinct skill to stare down the darkness and present it to the reader with such deftness.

"Who understands the world, and when
Will he make it makes sense? Or she?"

The fourth part of the book is quieter, looks more at domestic scenes, the poet's own children and relationships. Although strong in their own right, most of the poems in this section of the book lack the intensity of earlier sections, seem almost anticlimactic.

With Life on Mars Smith takes us from ordinary, intimate moments, a meal shared, to the outer reaches of space, then brings us home again.  She shows us the familiar world in sometimes gruesome light, and the unfamiliar Universe is brought close enough to touch. Life on Mars is ambitious, far-reaching, and a work of courage.
Roxanna Bennett lives and works on the outskirts of Toronto as a freelance writer and artist educator. Her work has appeared in a long list of publications and has been rejected by an even longer list of publications. She shamelessly reads comic books and has lots of great ideas for changing the heroic policy of not killing villains. Roxanna cannot do math of any kind nor does she know the difference between Imperial and metric measurements. Being Canadian, she writes words with an excessive number of vowels that American word processors maddeningly refuse to recognize as correct. Her first book of poetry 'The Uncertainty Principle' is out now from Tightrope Books.

© 2012, Roxanna Bennett