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on May 19, 2011
"Life on Mars" is a collection of 33 poems touching on most aspects of 21st Century American hope and belief. Make no mistake about it: life on Mars is life on Earth, and readers will recognize the ironies (sometimes quite bitter) between our culture's surface appearances we so like to show others and the realities of deep scars and wounds we try to hide even from ourselves. The poem that gives the collection its title is a beautifully crafted work that discusses the "dark matter" existing between us that we don't (won't?) recognize and that might be responsible for wreaking havoc in our personal lives. It's a chilling indictment of us all that uses actual recent events in our country to make us hope and pray that it's dark matter causing our incest, intolerance, ignorance and destruction. An earlier generation would've said "The devil made me do it," but ours tries to lay the blame on natural phenomena. The poem packs a punch - deftly though, and artistically. I swear it must have taken Smith many revisions and months to get it right, choosing just the right image, the right words, the right inflections and line meter to achieve such success.

The poem "Life on Mars" is followed by a shorter gem: "Solstice." Here, Smith addresses the killing of Canada geese at JFK airport, the killing of people, and the public's dwindling interest in the news. What's remarkable is Smith chose the format of a villanelle to tell the tale - a poetic form that uses rhyme, repetition and meter to create a mystical atmosphere. In this case, the villanelle greatly heightens a feeling of helplessness and loss, and we pray that the solstice of our culture has been reached and that light will soon begin to return.

The poem that provides the biggest kick in the book, however, is the monumental elegy, "The Speed of Belief." It contains some great lines and images, and walks us through a daughter's coping with the loss of her father. I say "coping" and not "grieving," because the daughter tries to imagine her father's death as part of a continuum, not an ending, and the poem builds through seven magnificently crafted sections to a powerful, wonderful conclusion that will leave the reader satisfied and saying, "Yes! Yes!" And one striking image from the poem will stay with me for a very long time, her father standing in the heavens, and "Night kneels at your feet like a gypsy glistening with jewels." This poem alone is worth the price of the book!

Great lines abound in this collection. For example, take this image from "The Good Life": a poor person " . . . walking to work on payday / like a woman journeying for water / from a village without a well."

These are poems that unflinchingly capture the human condition today, but they do so with great beauty . . . and a touch of solace.
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on June 28, 2014
I have a tendency of buying things on my wishlist when I'm intoxicated, and this just so happened to be one of those. I'm extremely pleased with this purchase. Tracy K. Smith's poems are grand, sometimes grand enough to give me chills. This is definitely a poetic endeavor that has landed among the stars.
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on April 11, 2016
There is a sci-fi tilt to Tracy K. Smith’s book of poetry, Life on Mars; her father was an optical engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope. He'd "read Larry Niven at home and drink scotch on the rocks,/ His eyes exhausted and pink." A good part of the book reflects her reactions to his death in 2008. She also takes a celestial-eye view of our foibles ("I spent two years not looking/Into the mirror at his office") horrors (the "father in the news who kept his daughter/ Locked in a cell for decades") and irrationalities ("I didn't want to believe/ What we believe in those rooms").

I hoped to find the remarkable title poem, Life On Mars, somewhere online, but no luck. It starts like this:

"Tina says what if dark matter is like the 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, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place."

Life can treat us roughly and horribly.

"I knew which direction to go
From the stench of what still burned.
It was funny to see my house
Like that - as if the roof
Had been lifted up and carried off
By someone playing at dolls.


Tina says we do it to one another, every day,
Knowing and not knowing. When it is love,
What happens feels like dumb luck. When it's not,
We're riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks."

Is it all due to dark matter? Or something else? It's well worth your tracking down that title poem to find out what she says.

This excellent one, beautifully titled, "My God, It's Full of Stars", can be found online. [...] Here's part of it:

"Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,

Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on

At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns

Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be

One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.

Wide open, so everything floods in at once.

And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,

Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke."

The title of the book comes from the David Bowie song, and his Ziggy Stardust persona pops up in the poems. So does the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and other cultural artifacts. This is a poetry book that's easy to enjoy, while giving the reader lots to ponder. I love this question she raises at the end of "No-Fly Zone"

"You lie there kicking like a baby, waiting for God himself
To lift you past the rungs of your crib. What
Would your life say if it could talk?"
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on July 1, 2015
The first third of this book is quite good, showing Ms. Smith as a poet with an original voice and vision. I thought the latter poems in the collection not so inventive. This could just be me, so if your a Tracy K. Smith champion, please ignore my remarks. I read a lot of contemporary poetry and much of the last half of this book seemed weaker when compared to the first grouping of poems. Still, she's a poet worth watching.
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on July 13, 2015
This was one of the books assigned to me for a poetry class in college. It is one of maybe two assigned books that I kept after graduating. I have always loved poetry, but this collection really stood out to me. Like Tracy K. Smith and her father, my family also bonds over science and science fiction, so I found myself relating very well to her poems about her father. I think this collection does require some knowledge about science because it has so many allusions to it. Some people in the class, for instance, had trouble understanding the poem "The Challenger" because they weren't familiar with that event in scientific history. This might be why some of the lower reviews say things like "I just didn't get it". If you like science and poetry, though, this is fantastic.
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on January 6, 2016
Life on Mars does all that we hope from great poetry: Here is a book that is not only artistically flawless, it explores grand themes of life and death, it delves intimately into the body and sensory experience, while ascending to great heights of the most abstract mysteries, it addresses with soberness and compassion the plight of our times--torture, gun violence, domestic abuse, environmental devastation--vignettes that show the best as well as worst of humanity. It is a book to be honored for its relevance and importance as well as for its beauty and artistic merit.

A heavy presence of the divine pervades Life on Mars. Often addressed as "it", it flows through the poems like an undercurrent uniting the diversity of subjects. "It" is the "everything / that ever was still is, somewhere, / floating near the surface", "It" is the "something they have no name for that insists upon being born"; "It" is the "kind of ecstasy" the dead experience without a body; "It" is the something that "soars, then grieves" to be born; "It" is the feeling of the body longing to touch the body of a lover. Like a great mystic, Smith points us to the origin of things, the mysterious force that moves the universe, the soul of the body and the largeness that is everything we can't see.

For me, the most remarkable poem in the collection is "They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected." The poem is based on homicides reported in the New York Times in the Spring of 2009. The victims write postcards to their assailants from America's most celebrated landmarks. The dead are given a voice as they speak about life, the strangeness of death and being killed. The victims address their assailants like intimate friends, and give an account of their view from the beyond. It is a most haunting poem that puts us intimately in touch with the ones hurt in brutal ways.

Life on Mars is a rare achievement. Tracy Smith tackles the most difficult subjects (God, death, politics) and makes them surprising and compelling. She is the most successful where her mystical leanings meet the lyrical and intimate details of real life. The only thing I didn't like about it was the title. "Life on Mars" gives the idea that this work is related to science fiction or otherworldly. The poem titles "The Universe as a Primal Scream" or "The Largeness We Can't See" seem more apt titles for the collection. Cultural references may feel obscure for those not familiar.
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on April 20, 2016
Had I read this book before we lost Bowie to the stars, I am sure its strengths would still have been palpable. Reading it after his passing was like walking through fire. She's an amazing balance of intellect and accessibility.
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on October 28, 2015
This text completely reoriented my work as a poet. Blending contemporary expressions of the personal with Blake's mythopoesis, Smith offers a daring, intimate vision of grief and death. Her use of 20th Century science and science fiction give Smith breathing room to touch on death in all its profoundness. I could not recommend this text more highly.
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on February 17, 2012
I read about this book in an issue of Nature, since I am a fan of both poetry and science related literature I decided to investigate! Tracy K. Smith does a nice job of offering a very human perspective on grand topics. The diction in this sense provides the reader with the most essential concepts of meaning and leaves us to wonder about the "Who" and "what." Time disappears as eternal questions of existence move the reader to wax ontologically. There is a balance of personal feelings and explorations of the majestic. It's reassuring to know that, in the tradition of prerogative, Ms. Smith has the jurisdiction to make creative musings on this scale. These poem's titles inspire the reader to dive into the freeness of these forms and break the code of "Savior Machine", identify with "At Some Point, They'll Want to Know What It's Like" and nod affirmatively with "Do You Wonder, Sometimes?"

The image on the cover does a lot for point of view, and leaves the reader with the question "Is it possible to sympathize with an imaginary significance, and in the same breath admire the "The Largeness We Can't See"?
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on March 2, 2015
verbose fluff. stale. linguist, not a poet. those were my visceral reactions. since they were taking away from the experience, i opened my mind and wound up reading at a level where i felt it necessary to dissect it apart word for word as if an assignment or a microscopic examination. i was determined. the title is "life on mars", after all, dammit. i wound up highlighting a bunch of words i could expand my vocabulary with. i backed away and thought it was both sad and funny. unimportant. mars isn't even on the cover so i guess i had it coming or whatever.
i can feel her poetry suffering with frustration. after initially rolling my eyes i hoped she'd prove me wrong, that this wasn't going to be the cavalier tone that's so fashionable to like these days. it's trite. i'm tired of it.

i really appreciate all the early-bowie references, and kosmos having something to do with her story- although it hardly comes across as a theme, other than one in the titling, or a reference thrown around here and there throughout a pretentious, sort of narcissistic account. i couldn't ACCESS it is why i call it narcissistic. it isn't universal.
perhaps the educations of the author and i differ (re: her bio on the back cover). i do see a poet in her work, somewhere. lost and dying to be found. if the author is truly concerned about her voice, she needs to back away from the prestigious (e.g: her bio on the back cover) and consider finding that voice again.
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