Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars Is a Grounding Presence
“What / Would your life say if it could talk?” (45). In her Pulitzer-winning 2011 poetry collection, Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith asks this and other momentous questions about the experience of being alive while contending with a universe that is unlikely to ever be fully understood. Following the death of her father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, Smith shifted her focus upward into space, as many of us do when faced with immeasurable grief; is there anything more likely than loss and the resulting feeling of “untethered-ness” to make us confront fortitude and “the meaning of it all?” It’s all too easy to forget that those epic emotions, those disorienting highs and lows, exist when we’re in the trenches of a daily life directed by deadlines and chores, and yet Smith makes space for seemingly minuscule details of life, like pop icons and eggs, and drapes them in grace over the course of this collection. By immaculately arranging her poems down to the level of syntax while diving headfirst into expansive questions of who, what, and why, Smith invites us to peer through a telescope of her own making at a world that begs so many questions and offers no concrete answers.
Life on Mars is composed of thirty poems spread across four sections. At the start of the collection, Smith digs deeply into human fear and admiration of the universe and “the largeness we can’t see” (18) that lies within it. The universe is the one concrete reason for existence, and part of the conscious condition is being aware of one’s own smallness in the face of infinity. That can be both terrifying and numbing. Smith acknowledges existence-based panic in “The Weather in Space,” the only poem that precedes the first section, debating the possibility and order of creation and creator. The poem, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” split into five parts and presented as a kind of miniature universe within the larger context of the work, maneuvers Smith’s own connection to space via her father’s occupation and demonstrates how loss pushes her, and us, to the limits of comprehension, “the edge of all there is” (12). But she also leaves room for the possibility that feeling afraid, that not knowing what comes next, doesn’t mean we’re reduced to nothingness: “So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” (12).
And there it is—the vague “it” that Smith uses recurrently throughout the first section of the collection: “It watches us” (14), “It is a molten, atomic” (13), “If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours” (13). The indefinite use of the word feels discombobulating, like you, dear reader, are not involved in this big secret housed within Smith’s poetic world, and the speaker seems to confirm that suspicion, saying, “We like to think of it as parallel to what we know / Only bigger” (8). But we are finally offered a brief shot of what “it” could be in the poem, “It & Co.” The speaker muses, “We / have gone looking for it everywhere” (17) and then circles back to the question raised in “The Weather in Space” by asking, “Is It us, or what contains us?” (17). So “it,” then, is The Answer as to what all of this is—or something like that. Humans have spent thousands of years coming up with variations on definitions of the universe, and Smith has encapsulated its equivocalness in a single word. “It” is knowable only in the way that another person is knowable; we can try and try to make sense of the version of something we see, and we may even believe we’ve figured it out. In the end there will always be realities sitting just beyond our grasp, and that, Smith insists, is alright.
Smith’s “it” tactfully sets the stage for a longer interrogation throughout the work that focuses on whether things fully leave or, rather, if they simply change. “The Speed of Belief” revisits the speaker ’s father’s death and the finality attached to it: “But where does all he knew—and all he must know now—walk?” (29). Do we lose loved ones when they die? If the dead really are gone, can the same be said about everything they embodied and accomplished? The universe that spits us out is the same one that swallows all of us eventually; Smith suggests that this is a cycle rather than a linear progression. The last poem in the second section, a sonnet titled “It’s Not,” extends the idea that death is not equal to obliteration: “So why do we insist / …. that death ran off with our / Everything worth having?” (34). No, according to the speaker, her father, “is only gone so far as we can tell” (34). The title of the poem itself leaves room for interpretation—“It’s Not” what? The End? For Smith, death is certainly not an end but a change in presence, which the speaker puts eloquently: “Again, I pray that you are what waits / To break back into the world / Through me.” (33).
The third and fourth sections in the collection have earned critique in other notable reviews due to a helter-skelter approach to their coverage of other subjects, but I have to disagree and maintain that Smith eases into other subjects cleverly by beginning the third section with “Life on Mars”, a nine-part poem that relates dark matter to humans’ propensity to hurt one another deeply. What follows is one of my favorite poems in the entire collection, “Solstice,” which showcases Smith’s undeniable mastery of form. “Solstice” is made up of six stanzas, the first five of which are tercets. Each stanza builds and modifies the preceding stanza in a unique way, altering both the reader’s and the speaker’s perception of an event in time. During a solstice, we experience the sun differently than we normally would, resulting in the longest day and the longest night of the year. Smith peppers this idea of change in constants throughout the poem by keeping a consistent rhyme scheme in the first five stanzas but modifying their phrases, turning “They’re gassing geese outside of JFK” to “The geese were terrorizing JFK” to “We dislike what they did at JFK” (43). The poem asserts that in America, we have a tendency to turn innocents, fellow Americans like us, into enemies. Smith uses a quatrain in the final stanza to break with her form, juxtaposing this lengthening with the line, “We dwindle day by day” (43). Using these transitional poems that continue with metaphors of weather and space, Smith moves gracefully into other topics like race-based hate crimes, which she addresses in the long poem, “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” structured as victims’ letters to their killers. Moving out of the third section, Smith interweaves funny, mundane details (such as a dog lying in the grass like a “misbegotten turd” (63) in “Eggs Norwegian”) with further exploration of the grief-stricken longing that’s tethered to the mystery of the universe. These final two sections of the collection look a lot like everyday life; some days we can be fully present to enjoy a plate of eggs or to relish in the “easy quiet dancing” (66) with a partner, and other days we keel over in the nebulousness of it all. In the Life of Mars, the beauty in this process is that it’s never ending.
In an interview with The Iowa Review in 2016, Smith said that during the process of writing, she is, “moving toward what [she doesn’t] know and toward the discoveries that poems, [she believes], are constantly making.” Life on Mars lovingly guides its readers through a reckoning with what they don’t know and what they can’t know. By directing us away from the past and the future and situating us comfortably in the present, Smith reminds us that everything is being constantly altered by a “largeness” inaccessible to us. But we can step into that largeness—we can hold it with us—as we stumble through this life, blooming and roaring and breaking back into the world.