Tracy K. Smith likes David Bowie. I like David Bowie. Therefore I like Tracy K. Smith.
How’s that for logic? No, it doesn’t quite work even though it is true.
After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being — a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure
That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough?
Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012. The collection is not about life on Mars, but it is about longing and desire, about the wonder and beauty that is “out there” and the wonder and beauty that is also right in front of us.
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.
The collection is a nice combination of long, multi-part poems that change structure and rhythm from section to section and shorter, one page poems. Sometimes the poems are obviously personal but they are written in such a way that the reader is pulled into the intimacy. Other poems mine science, science fiction, movies and music for images from Dave at the end of 2001 and Charlton Heston as Moses to David Bowie and weather in space.
In one poem, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” the universe is imagined in different ways that reflect human desire because, when you think about it, the universe is often a big canvas onto which we project ourselves. One of my favorite portions of the poem is the universe imagined as a library:
Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.
Another poem, “They May Love All That He Has Chosen And Hate All That He Has Rejected,” I read not long after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and it brought me to tears. The poem is about hate and love and lives taken in murder and has several “postcards” from the dead to their assailants sent from various American landmarks. I was getting along ok until I read this:
I’m happy. I’ll probably be in Greece soon, or the mountains of Chile. I
used to think my body was a container for love. There is so much more
now without my body. A kind of ecstasy. Tonight, I’m at the bottom of
the Grand Canyon. I don’t know where I end. The night is starry and the stars
are blue and shiver in the distance.
After that, I had a little sob because I truly, truly hope that love is bigger than death.
Perhaps the best way to describe this collection of poems can be found at the beginning of one of them, “IT & Co”
We are part of IT. Not guests.
Is IT us, or what contains us?
Throughout the collection there is a kind of searching, a longing to know and find answers, a grief over what is lost, a hope that it might be found again, a yearning for connection. It is not a happy collection that will make you laugh though there is humor now and then. It is, however, a collection that will make you feel very human as it reaches for the stars while also remaining firmly planted here on earth.