Magazine article The New Yorker

Other Worlds

Magazine article The New Yorker

Other Worlds

Article excerpt

The title of Tracy K. Smith's new book of poetry, "Life on Mars" (Graywolf; $15), recalls the mid-century craze for all things Martian. Kids who grew up in the nineteen-forties and fifties, in the grip of Mars mania, had their own kids in the seventies; Smith, born in 1972 and a professor of creative writing at Princeton, was one of those kids, as was I. By then, Mars was a joke. The Viking images of the planet's surface made it look as inhabitable as cat litter. David Bowie had a great, disillusioned single called "Life on Mars?" in 1973 (it inspired Smith's title), about a girl forced to sit through the unendurable Hollywood fare of her parents' childhoods--cavemen, cowboys, Martians, and the like. Wherever we were headed, in the vast, fathomless future, it wasn't going to be outer space: the prospect of "life on Mars" was just another relic of our dreary life on earth.

Life on earth was particularly bad if you grew up black in the forties in Sunflower, Alabama, north of Mobile, as Smith's father did. Not that he stuck around: he joined the Air Force, and eventually worked as an optical engineer on the Hubble space telescope. He died in 2008, and "Life on Mars" is Smith's wild, far-ranging elegy for him. Its alternating cosmic breadth and intimate focus derives from the shared situation of poets and astronomers, squinting to glimpse immensity: "bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find." Smith's own poetic focus, though polished, like the lenses of the Hubble, "to an impossible strength," is often directed to the here and now: the book 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."

Smith cannot think about her father without thinking in galactic dimensions, which, paradoxically, minimize him: drawn to that scale, individual lives (even his) can seem puny, and private traumas (even hers) inconsequential. A brief, haunting lyric, "Us & Co.," sees the whole human story as a cosmic blip:

We are here for what amounts to a few hours,

a day at most.

We feel around making sense of the terrain,

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes home.

Moments sweep past. The grass bends

then learns again to stand.

The grass bent under the weight of a human body is, in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and in Robert Frost's great lyric "To Earthward," the very signature of human presence. When we die, the grass gets its turn to tell the story from its own point of view: reborn like a teetering fawn, it "learns again to stand." But poets so keen to erase human presence do not ordinarily render it this poignantly: Smith's father is shown returning from a long day at the Hubble to "read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks, / His eyes exhausted and pink." The fleetingly personal details in this book have to answer to the challenge posed by the comically resurgent grass; the cosmic scale is localized and given meaning in a father's eyes, bleary from a day spent bringing deep space a little nearer to human consciousness.

Smith's central conceit allows her to see us, our moment, as specks in the future's rearview mirror. Futures and pasts are, in astronomy as in poetry, all mixed up. Images transmitted to our telescopes from space are old, as every schoolkid knows, and yet they present a prospect that we think of as "the future." So it's fitting that to write about the Space Age Smith turns to forms that predate the modern world (including a terrific example of the villanelle, that old troubadour invention, about the euthanizing of geese at J.F.K. Airport). And it's fitting that her tart poem "Sci-Fi" turns out to relate the ways that "History, with its hard spine & dog-eared / Corners, will be replaced with nuance," and consigned, with other evidence of human struggle, to "The Museum of Obsolescence":

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