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Life on Mars: Poems Paperback – May 10, 2011
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“In Life on Mars, Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition. It's not easy to be so convincing in both the grand gesture and the reverent contemplation of a humble plate of eggs. . . . As all the best poetry does, Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.” ―Joel Brouwer, The New York Times Book Review
“[Life on Mars] is by turns intimate, even confessional, regarding private life in light of its potential extermination, and resoundingly political, warning of a future that 'isn't what it used to be,' the refuse of a party piled with 'postcards / And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim.' ” ―Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
“The book's strange and beautiful first section pulses with America's adolescent crush on the impossible, on what waits beyond the edge of the universe. . . . But what's most satisfying about [Life on Mars] is that after the grand space opera of Part 1, with its giddy name checks of 2001 and David Bowie, Ms. Smith shows us that she can play the minor keys, too. Her Martian metaphor firmly in place, she reveals unknowable terrains: birth and death and love.” ―Dana Jennings, The New York Times
“[Life on Mars] blends pop culture, history, elegy, anecdote, and sociopolitical commentary to illustrate the weirdness of contemporary living. . . . The title poem, which includes everything from 'dark matter' and 'a father.../ who kept his daughter/ Locked in a cell for decades' to Abu Ghraib is proof that life is far stranger and more haunting than fiction.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Hypnotic and brimming with irony, the poems in Smith's latest volume aren't so much about outer space as the interior life and the search for the divine. . . . The spiritual motif running through these poems adds a stunning dimension that will please many readers.” ―Library Journal
“[Tracy K. Smith is] one of the finest poets writing right now.” ―Gabrielle Calvocoressi, The Miami Herald
“In Life on Mars, a vibrant collection of verse, Smith pays homage to David Bowie ('the Pope of Pop'), Stanley Kubric, the Hubble Telescope, JFK airport and more. It's a gripping, intergalactic ride that marvels at the miracles and malfunctions of our ever changing world. 'Like a wide wake, rippling/Infinitely into the distance, everything/That ever was still is, somewhere.'” ―More Magazine
“[The poems] are smart, funny, and expertly crafted.” ―San Francisco Chronicle, Best Poetry of 2011
“A strong, surprising, and often beautiful book. . . . Consistently surprising and demanding, Life on Mars gives materiality to Victor Martinez's statement that 'poetry is the essence of thinking.' ” ―Sean Singer, The Rumpus
About the Author
Tracy K. Smith is the author of two previous poetry collections: Duende, winner of the James Laughlin Award, and The Body's Question, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
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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?"
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.