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Book Review: Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith

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Tracy K Smith’s work manages to toe the line perfectly between a commonplace modernism and a fanciful classicism. The poems in her collection Life on Mars are intrinsically current, referencing a bunch of cultural icons, including Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a range of David Bowie songs, current affairs and news items.

Bowie is particularly prevalent, not only in the title poem, which comes from the Hunky Dory song of the same title, but also lines from the albums Low and The Man Who Sold the World. Despite these links, Life on Mars is no easy pop song, even when it presents its lightest form, as in the Villanelle “Solstice”.

“Solstice” takes a series of modern happenings including the gassing of geese outside of JFK airport, Iranian bloodshed, and the shrinking of newspapers. While the lines are simple – almost a recount, the effect is explosive, forcing us to think about the sound-bite nature of our reporting and the matter of fact way we absorb, accept, and acclimatise ourselves to horror:

“We’ve learned to back away from all we say
And, more or less, agree with what we should
Whole Flocks are being gassed near JFK.”(43)

The book is divided into four parts. Though an astronomical theme flows through and unites all the poems, the first section is the most rooted in space travel and sci-fi, with just a touch of ice-edged kitsch.

In “Sci-Fi”, the future we imagine in our limited fantasies is a bleak one, with the word ‘sun’ reassigned to “a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device”, and our lives, sterilised, sexless and safe. It’s a similar story with “My God, It’s Full of Stars”, the Kubrick-inspired ode to alien-life, with space:

“choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere” (10)

The cute kitsch continues until the television-inspired picture of the universe is replaced with images from Hubble, showing us it’s vastness: “So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”

Throughout the section, and indeed throughout the book, humour and pathos mingle easily, as “The Universe is a House Party”, where we welcome our alien neighbours generously with open arms, until the chilling denouement shows us how small we really are; how limited.

Throughout the section, fathers, aliens, heroes, God or gods are all simultaneously present and absent, forming a nexus of sound and vision that both lifts us up into a grander perspective of ourselves while reminding us how tiny we are in the face of the universe. Throughout the flamboyance, the work retains a rich beauty — even at its bleakest, most ironic:

“The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines chruns.

Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.”(24)

The second section is primarily an lengthy elegy sequence titled “The Speed of Belief”, written for Smith’s father. Each page of the elegy has a slightly different structure, charting life and death with co-mingled grief, longing, exhilaration, and questioning. In this ibeautiful sequence, Smith converts her personal experience to a universal one — reminding us of what we’ve all lost, where we all sit, and what’s around each corner.

The final poem, “It’s Not”, forms a perfect conclusion – a kind of acceptance mingled with philosophy – life and death forming an natural progression or changing of form:

“Legs slicing away at the waves, gliding
Further into what life itself denies?
He is only gone so far as we can tell. Though
When I try, I see the white cloud of his hair
In the distance like an eternity.” (34)

The third section is inspired by anger, full of humanity’s great failings: the wrongs we’ve done to one another, the damage we’re doing to the Earth, the flaws we can’t seem to move beyond. Smith doesn’t flinch from these, though she uses the astronomical to gain perspective, and perhaps even a kind of healing, though the kind of evil that drives this section can’t be undone.

The title poem uses the concept of dark matter to explore the darkness in humanity, including the 2009 case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter locked in a basement for 24 years, human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, rape, torture, war, and the destruction of the planet: “How else could we get things so wrong,/Like a story hacked to bits and told in reverse?—“

Other poems in this section chart small-mindedness, hypocrisy, prejudice, and hatred. The most intense of these is “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected”. The poem opens with anger, the distilled hatred of white supremacy. The poem could continue to grow the anger — there’s plenty to inspire it, but Smith controls the work beautifully, moving from the general: “Hate spreads itself out thin and skims the surface,” to particular killings conducted by white supremacists in 2009. Smith moves the work away from that anger though, presenting compassion instead. In a masterful twist, Smith allows the dead to speak, and forgive, allowing those that destroyed with their hatred, a tiny crumb of love.

The final section of the book comes back to domesticity: noisy neighbours – shrieking through the floorboards (“Screaming like the Dawn of Man, as if something/They have no name for has begun to insist/Upon being born”), a relationship in stasis, walking the dog, earning a living, coming to grips with romantic love, and above all, the art of creativity, as in “Alternate Take”, the wonderful poem for Levon Helm:

“Six lines were bothered by skitters off like water in hot grease.
Come in, Levon, with your lips stretched tight and that pig-eyed grin,
Bass mallet socking it to the drum. Lay it down like you know” (67)

Even at its most bleak, the work is shot through with humour and compassion. Even at its most obscure, the poems are rooted in the present tense; grounded by the everyday experience of observation. At the heart of Smith’s everyday experience is an expansiveness that calls to mind the universal. Life on Mars is an extraordinary collection that will no doubt draw new readers, intrigued by what poetry is able to achieve. Life on Mars’ rich tapestry traverses a broad spectrum of modern experience, linking pop-culture to science and the geography of human pain, forgiveness and transcendence.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.