Life on Mars Tracy K. Smith

2 posts

First Poem, Last Poem, Lasting Poems

The bookends of a poetry collection: the first poem and the last. Hook the reader, the Dalai Lama once said. Finish with a bang, the Muses once sang.

So as I finally say goodbye to Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, move on tomorrow to my Summer To-Be-Read Pile (post coming soon to a site near you!), let’s remember Tracy by reading her first poem and her last in this collection… the lasting poems. First the first:


“Weather in Space” by Tracy K. Smith

Is God being or pure force? The wind

Or what commands it? When our lives slow

And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls

In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm

Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing

After all we’re certain to lose, so alive–

Faces radiant with panic.


And then the last:


“US & CO.” by Tracy K. Smith

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.



First and last better be lasting, though the filling carries the day, of course. Still, if you’re going to finish a poetry book, a lasting poem with a lasting line helps in the resonance department.

“The grass bends / then learns to stand again” lasts in so many ways. What is life but bending? And if you think learning again to stand is easy, you’re living a different life than the rest of us. One on the red planet, maybe.

(End of Life on Mars entries, star date 25 June, Year of Our Lord 2018, 2:55 p.m.)


Life on Mars — Given the News, Maybe Better Than Life on Earth


While I wait for my summer reading books to coalesce from library orders and online book orders, I must first worry about the library books. Interlibrary loan, the 8th Wonder of the World, has its disadvantages like everything else. It all depends on the library. And the book.


As Exhibit A, I give you Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Life on Mars. Its loan period is only two weeks. Its allowable renewals is only once. This for a six-year-old book (that’s right, if the collection were a  little girl, it would be in first grade by now).


That means this one must be read ipso fasto. Which means it’s “summer reading” but not really summer reading because I’m trying to summer read it before the first day of summer — all before I begin my summer-reading pile.


But me? Complain? Life is good. I know because I read it on a T-shirt yesterday. (We can learn so much from T-shirts. And bumper stickers. And our wives.) Wait a minute. Where was I? Ah. Life on Mars.


The book contains 35 poems. Number two, provided below, is entitled with a term science fiction readers don’t like. It’s not cool to says “sci-fi,” I guess. Just like “San Fran” for San Francisco. Tacky. Nerdy. Proves you’re not one of them, whoever they may be.


Anyway, it’s a look at the future, where there are no incarceration centers where children are held as hostages (read: “bargaining chips”) while U.S. Presidents call it “the law” (translation: small fry for a big wall Mexico won’t pay for, and smart Americans won’t, either):


by Tracy K. Smith
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 the 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.


The first noticeable thing about Smith’s poetry is her capitalization of lines. It’s old school, but it bothers a lot of people. I’m not one of them, but just so you know. You may some day share a poem and hear, “Is there a reason you capitalize every line like that?” to which I can only reply, “Is there a reason you wear your hair like that?” (Actually, I would never say such a thing, but you get the gist.)


To me, this is a list poem. “Long live the list poem!” A poet who lost his grocery list once said that. Or his “Honey do” list.


I like how history becomes concrete in the form of a book “with its hard spine & dog-eared / Corners.” (Oh, yes. Some people who read your poems will also ask, “Why do you use ampersands and not the word ‘and’?” Tracey K. Smith does NOT get asked this, however. I guess a Pulitzer is the equivalent of bulletproof vests & Kryptonite combined.)


I like, too, how we’ll “live to be much older, thanks / To popular consensus.” Not that’s a democracy.


Re: the one-line finish after a steady menu of couplets. Yep. You’ll be called on it (“you” not being Tracy K. Smith) if you try it and seek feedback. Such final lines can certainly be used as a method of emphasis in a poem, but the cynical sorts will label it “precious” and demand that you find the line a mate.


Everybody, double up. Couplets everywhere! You! Where do you think you’re going? (At this point, a very young — say, six-year-old — poetic license is apprehended and incarcerated. Someone shouts it’s the law. And that’s not “Sci-Fi,” people. It’s on the front page of your newspaper. In America. Home of the free and the motto, “Don’t Trump on Me!”)