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.