Tracy K. Smith has published three books of poetry, all of which have been award winners. The Body’s Question (2003) won the Cave Canem Prize, Duende (2007) won the James Laughlin Award and the Essence Magazine’s Literary Award in 2008. Smith’s third collection, Life on Mars (2011), won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Of this third collection Joel Brouwer writes, “Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition.”
Quite true is Joel Brouwer’s statement. In Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith takes us on a journey through the stars in search of solace from grief, all the while contemplating the grandness of the universe while still keeping the poems exquisitely crafted throughout the book. Smith’s search of solace from grief comes from the passing of her father, and it is this which fuels the inspiration for Life on Mars. Smith displays a keen ear for music; her diction is precise. This is demonstrated in the following lines from part 9 of the title poem: “We’re riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks. / Every day. To ourselves and one another. And what / If what it is, and what sends it, has nothing to do / With what we can’t see? Nothing whatsoever / To do with a power other than muscle, will, sheer fright?” These lines evoke powerful images and use tight knit language to explore her grief.
The journey on which we embark within Smith’s collection can be found particularly in “The Museum of Obsolescence” in which Smith writes: “We’re here / To titter at the gimcracks, the naive tools, / The replicas of replicas stacked like bricks. / There’s green money, and oil in drums. / Pots of honey pilfered from a tomb. Books / Recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars.” In these lines we can see the language speaking to each other to invite the reader to dive into the stars. This can also be found in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” when she points out how we seek answers within the cosmos only to find comfort, much like we would in a mother. The cosmic-mother figure provides a sense of comfort anyone would hope to find from a mother figure, and this alignment has the potential to reach not just Smith’s speakers, but to both the reader and anyone simply seeking that basic need for comfort and security.
Smith not only enters into conversation with the universe in her book, but also with various references to pop culture, science fiction, and fantasy. The aforementioned poem, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” adapts a quote as well as an opening line the famous novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey into its title. Smith also reaches out to David Bowie for inspiration in her poems “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”, “Savior Machine”, and the self-title “Life on Mars.” All of these titles borrow lines from Bowie’s lyrics or song titles. David Bowie seems well-placed in the collection. As Smith writes in “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”: “He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie / For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ.” It seems as though Smith is also cleverly offering us solace about the universe and the many unknowns in the universe within Bowie’s music, using him almost as a god-like adviser within her search for truth and solace.
The book is well-timed in the framework of Smith’s career; after many awards and a mentorship from poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Smith offers a reflection on life which speaks to a new generation that has grown up with the stars being closer than ever thanks to technology. We journey through the stars and imagination, and when we exit we are forever hooked—forever hinged—within the fantastical world that is Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. The experience felt while reading Life on Mars can be summed up in her poem “When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me”:
From what dream of world did you wriggle free?
What soared—and what grieved—when you aimed your will
At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?
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