Laughlin Award–winner Smith's third collection blends pop culture, history, elegy, anecdote, and sociopolitical commentary to illustrate the weirdness of contemporary living. The book's title, borrowed from a David Bowie song, hints at the recurrent use of science fiction and alternate realities (which turn out to mirror this one all too well) throughout the book. For Smith, life is laced with violence and a kind of dark humor, as in "The Museum of Obsolescence," where, "in the south wing, there's a small room/ Where a living man sits on display." In another poem, laughter "skids across the floor/ Like beads yanked from some girl's throat." Poems set on space shuttles or in alternate realities manage to speak about an eerily familiar present; 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. "Who understands the world," Smith asks in these poems and sequences, "and when/ Will he make it make sense? Or she?" (May)
* Poet Laureate of the United States *
* A New York Times Notable Book of 2011 and New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice *
* A New Yorker, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year *
New poetry by the award-winning poet Tracy K. Smith, whose "lyric brilliance and political impulses never falter" (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
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?
from "No Fly Zone"
With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars imagines a soundtrack for the universe to accompany the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence. In these brilliant new poems, Tracy K. Smith envisions a sci-fi future sucked clean of any real dangers, contemplates the dark matter that keeps people both close and distant, and revisits the kitschy concepts like "love" and "illness" now relegated to the Museum of Obsolescence. These poems reveal the realities of life lived here, on the ground, where a daughter is imprisoned in the basement by her own father, where celebrities and pop stars walk among us, and where the poet herself loses her father, one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. With this remarkable third collection, Smith establishes herself among the best poets of her generation.
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
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- 2011-2020->Poetry->Pulitzer Prize
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- American poetry->21st century
- American poetry->African American authors->21st century
- American poetry->African American women authors
- American poetry->Women authors->21st century
- Books from the 2004 Winners of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards
- Library Journal's Best Poetry of 2011
- New York Times Notable Fiction & Poetry of 2011
- New Yorker's Favorite Fiction & Poetry of 2011
- Poetry - General & Miscellaneous
- Publishers Weekly's Best Poetry of 2011
Read an Excerpt
Life On Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2011 Tracy K. Smith
All rights reserved.
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we'll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow —
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we'll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
MY GOD, IT'S FULL OF STARS
We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.
Or one man against a city of zombies. One man
Who is not, in fact, a man, sent to understand
The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants
Let loose down the pants of America. Man on the run.
Man with a ship to catch, a payload to drop,
This message going out to all of space. ... Though
Maybe it's more like life below the sea: silent,
Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics
Of an outmoded design. Some like to imagine
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,
Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best
While the father storms through adjacent rooms
Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,
Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw.
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.
Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in. He asked once politely.
A second time with force from the diaphragm. The third time,
He did it like Moses: arms raised high, face an apocryphal white.
Shirt crisp, suit trim, he stoops a little coming in,
Then grows tall. He scans the room. He stands until I gesture,
Then he sits. Birds commence their evening chatter. Someone fires
Charcoals out below. He'll take a whiskey if I have it. Water if I don't.
I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back.
That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.
Hero, survivor, God's right hand man, I know he sees the blank
Surface of the moon where I see a language built from brick and bone.
He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,
Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth. And:
May I smoke? The voices outside soften. Planes jet past heading off or back.
Someone cries that she does not want to go to bed. Footsteps overhead.
A fountain in the neighbor's yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors. It was another time, he says, picking up again.
We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth
Toward God-knows-where? I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.
Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they — we — flicker in.
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 it 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.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
In those last scenes of Kubrick's 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint-in-water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on. ...
In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter's vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn't blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?
On set, it's shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, and bright white.
He'd read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled
To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
THE UNIVERSE IS A HOUSE PARTY
The universe is expanding. Look: postcards
And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim,
Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots.
Quickly, wordlessly, all of it whisked into file
With radio waves from a generation ago
Drifting to the edge of what doesn't end,
Like the air inside a balloon. Is it bright?
Will our eyes crimp shut? Is it molten, atomic,
A conflagration of suns? It sounds like the kind of party
Your neighbors forget to invite you to: bass throbbing
Through walls, and everyone thudding around drunk
On the roof. We grind lenses to an impossible strength,
Point them toward the future, and dream of beings
We'll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:
How marvelous you've come! We won't flinch
At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We'll rise,
Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they'll know exactly what we mean.
Of course, it's ours. If it's anyone's, it's ours.
THE MUSEUM OF OBSOLESCENCE
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts
Ticking through our shirts. We're here
To titter at the gimcracks, the naïve tools,
The replicas of replicas stacked like bricks.
There's green money, and oil in drums.
Pots of honey pilfered from a tomb. Books
Recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars.
In the south wing, there's a small room
Where a living man sits on display. Ask,
And he'll describe the old beliefs. If you
Laugh, he'll lower his head to his hands
And sigh. When he dies, they'll replace him
With a video looping on ad infinitum.
Special installations come and go. "Love"
Was up for a season, followed by "Illness,"
Concepts difficult to grasp. The last thing you see
(After a mirror — someone's idea of a joke?)
Is an image of the old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.
Does God love gold?
Does He shine back
At Himself from walls
Like these, leafed
In the earth's softest wealth?
Women light candles,
Pray into their fistful of beads.
Cameras spit human light
Into the vast holy dark,
And what glistens back
Is high up and cold. I feel
Man here. The same wish
That named the planets.
Man with his shoes and tools,
His insistence to prove we exist
Just like God, in the large
And the small, the great
And the frayed. In the chords
That rise from the tall brass pipes,
And the chorus of crushed cans
Someone drags over cobbles
In the secular street.
AT SOME POINT, THEY'LL WANT TO KNOW WHAT IT WAS LIKE
There was something about how it felt. Not just the during —
That rough churn of bulk and breath, limb and tooth, the mass of us,
The quickness we made and rode — but mostly the before.
The waiting, knowing what would become. Pang. Pleasure then pain.
Then the underwater ride of after. Thrown-off like a coat over a bridge.
Somehow you'd just give away what you'd die without. You just gave.
The best was having nothing. No hope. No name in the throat.
And finding the breath in you, the body, to ask.
IT & CO.
We are a part of It. Not guests.
Is It us, or what contains us?
How can It be anything but an idea,
Something teetering on the spine
Of the number i? It is elegant
But coy. It avoids the blunt ends
Of our fingers as we point. We
Have gone looking for It everywhere:
In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming
Like a wound from the ocean floor.
Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.
Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-
Appeasable. It is like some novels:
Vast and unreadable.
THE LARGENESS WE CAN'T SEE
When our laughter skids across the floor
Like beads yanked from some girl's throat,
What waits where the laughter gathers?
And later, when our saw-toothed breaths
Lay us down on a bed of leaves, what feeds
With ceaseless focus on the leaves?
It's solid, yet permeable, like a mood.
Like God, it has no face. Like lust,
It flickers on without a prick of guilt.
We move in and out of rooms, leaving
Our dust, our voices pooled on sills.
We hurry from door to door in a downpour
Of days. Old trees inch up, their trunks thick
With new rings. All that we see grows
Into the ground. And all we live blind to
Leans its deathless heft to our ears
DON'T YOU WONDER, SOMETIMES?
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? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?
Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he'll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired
And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I'm forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I'll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.
He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That's Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he's trademarked twice. The hours
Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.
Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?
The future isn't what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.
Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. In a baseball cap
And expensive jeans. Ducking into
A deli. Flashing all those teeth
At the doorman on his way back up.
Or he's hailing a taxi on Lafayette
As the sky clouds over at dusk.
He's in no rush. Doesn't feel
The way you'd think he feels.
Doesn't strut or gloat. Tells jokes.
I've lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I'll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall. He's got
The whole world under his foot,
And we are small alongside,
Though there are occasions
When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
I spent two years not looking
Into the mirror in his office.
Talking, instead, into my hands
Or a pillow in my lap. Glancing up
Occasionally to let out a laugh.
Gradually it felt like a date with a friend,
Which meant it was time to end.
Two years later, I saw him walking
Up Jay Street into the sun. No jacket,
His face a little chapped from wind.
He looked like an ordinary man carrying
Shirts home from the laundry, smiling
About something his daughter had said
Earlier that morning. Back before
You existed to me, you were a theory.
Now I know everything: the words you hate.
Where you itch at night. In our hallway,
There are five photos of your dead wife.
This is what we mean by sharing a life. Still,
From time to time, I think of him watching me
From over the top of his glasses, or eating candy
From a jar. I remember thanking him each time
The session was done. But mostly what I see
Is a human hand reaching down to lift
A pebble from my tongue.
The voice is clean. Has heft. Like stones
Dropped in still water, or tossed
One after the other at a low wall.
Chipping away at what pushes back.
Not always making a dent, but keeping at it.
And the silence around it is a door
Punched through with light. A garment
That attests to breasts, the privacy
Between thighs. The body is what we lean toward,
Tensing as it darts, dancing away.
But it's the voice that enters us. Even
Saying nothing. Even saying nothing
Over and over absently to itself.
THE UNIVERSE: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK
The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.
Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,
Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored
Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:
The dark we've only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.
Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.
THE SPEED OF BELIEF
In memoriam, Floyd William Smith 1935–2008
I didn't want to wait on my knees
In a room made quiet by waiting.
A room where we'd listen for the rise
Of breath, the burble in his throat.
I didn't want the orchids or the trays
Of food meant to fortify that silence,
Or to pray for him to stay or to go then
Finally toward that ecstatic light.
I didn't want to believe
What we believe in those rooms:
That we are blessed, letting go,
Letting someone, anyone,
Drag open the drapes and heave us
Back into our blinding, bright lives.
When your own sweet father died
You woke before first light
And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,
And drank a glass of milk.
After you'd left, I sat in your place
And finished the toast bits with jam
And the cold eggs, the thick bacon
Flanged in fat, savoring the taste.
Then I slept, too young to know how narrow
And grave the road before you seemed —
All the houses zipped tight, the night's
Few clouds muddy as cold coffee.
You stayed gone a week, and who were we
Without your clean profile nicking away
At anything that made us afraid?
One neighbor sent a cake. We ate
The baked chickens, the honeyed hams.
We bowed our heads and prayed
You'd come back safe,
Knowing you would.
Excerpted from Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith. Copyright © 2011 Tracy K. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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