Tracy K. Smith Life on Mars

2 posts

Ghazals as Elegies: Ask Not for Whom the Word Tolls…

Summer solstice. Midsummer’s Night. A hard day’s night into the longest day of the year. Last day of school. First day of summer reading. All this, and still living on Mars with Tracy K. Smith.

Part Two of Smith’s Pulitzer poetry collection, Life on Mars, consists of elegies of various kinds in honor of her father. One of them is a ghazal, a poetic form pronounced the way you eat your food on Thanksgiving (“guzzle”) and not the way I’d like to say it (“ga-ZAL”).

As poetic forms go, a ghazal is fairly simple. Couplets, couplets, couplets, with the last word of the second lines all following the leaders ending the first couplet’s two lines. OK, if it’s so simple, why haven’t I written one? The reason is as simple as the form: I’m leery of the effect created by all that repetition. It’s one of those forms that looks easy but can look amateurish in the wrong hands. Kind of like prose writers who imitate Hemingway (God spare us all).

The poems in this part of the book, eight in number, are bookended by ones with titles. The other six lack one. It’s a conceit that doesn’t seem conceited. Writing about death lovingly will do that to a poem. Here is Smith’s title-less ghazal about her dad:


What does the storm set free? Spirits stripped of flesh on their slow walk.
The poor in cities learn: when there is no place to lie down, walk.

At night, the streets are minefields. Only sirens drown out the cries.
If you’re being followed, hang on to yourself and run — no — walk.

I wandered through evenings of lit windows, laughter inside walls.
The sole steps amid streetlamps, errant stars. Nothing else below walked.

When we believed in the underworld, we buried fortunes for our dead.
Low country of dogs and servants, where ghosts in gold-stitched robes walk.

Old loves turn up in dreams, still livid at every slight. Show them out.
This bed is full. Our limbs tangle in sleep, but our shadows walk.

Perhaps one day it will be enough to live a few seasons and return to ash.
No children to carry our names. No grief. Life will be a brief, hollow walk.

My father won’t lie still, though his legs are buried in trousers and socks.
But where does all he knew — and all he must now know — walk?


The word “minefield” appears in this poem, and it’s a great way of describing the obstacles of simplicity. Lines approximately the same length. End lines. And that word, like the gong of a clock, appearing predictably again and again, only becoming successful if, like a clock’s ticking, it is noticed but not.

I like how Smith sneaks in some sound devices, some rhymes, and most important of all, some memorable lines. I especially like “Life will be a brief, hollow walk.” Sounds like a cheerful epigram, but then you say, “Wait a minute….” For me, it also echoes Yeats’ lines in “Never Give All the Heart“: “For everything that’s lovely / is but a brief, dreamy, kind delight.”

A kind and dreamy delight, yes. Yet brief and hollow. That’s life. That’s the loss of a loved one. All in couplets guzzled down as if to slake a mysterious thirst.


Aubades: Love Poems That Dawn On You

“Poetry doesn’t get enough mainstream attention these days. It’s a mode of engaging with the world, it feels like magic, it requires nothing of you other than a willing ear. It’s also a mode of engagement that is not argumentative, it’s full of surprise, and it’s full of grace.”

Thus spake Jia Tolentino in her video intro to a reading of Tracy K. Smith’s “Solstice,” taken from Life on Mars, the book I’ve been reading (or perhaps that’s been reading me).

The book itself is a rich nougat, much sweeter and more filling than expected. All manner of poetry is going on here, from free verse to bound forms to boundless imagination in the form of postcard missives between people.

As another example of the variety, I give you an aubade entitled, quite simply, “Aubade.” An old French form, an aubade, gets its own 2-minute podcast on Merriam-Webster. Although it looks like you’d pronounce it with a long “a,” it is, in fact, pronounced “oh-BOD.” Without further ado, here is Tracy’s love song to the morning:


by Tracy K. Smith

You wake with a start from some dream
Asking if I want to walk with you around the block.

You go through the things that need doing
Before Monday. Six emails. A presentation on Manet.

No, I don’t want to put on clothes and shoes
And dark glasses and follow the dog and you

Down Smith Street. It’s eight o’clock. The sun
Is toying with those thick clouds and the trees

Shake their heads in the wind. You exhale,

Wheel your feet to the floor, walk around to my side
And let your back end drop down onto the bed.

You resort to the weather. A high today of 78.
But that’s hours aways. And look at the dog

Still passed out cold, twitching in a dream.

When we stop talking, we hear the soft sounds
He makes in his sleep. Not quite barking. More like

Learning to speak. As if he’s in the middle of a scene
Where he must stand before the great dog god

Trying to account for his life.


Mornings can get rather prosaic, as this aubade attests, making it a much easier form for poets to explore than the ghazals we found leaping around in yesterday’s post. And it feels as if the aubade isn’t done speaking, either, when we see, two poems later, Smith’s continuation of the dog theme. For what goes with mornings more than dogs?


“Eggs Norwegian”

by Tracy K. Smith

Give a man a stick, and he’ll hurl it at the sun
For his dog to race toward as it falls. He’ll relish
The snap in those jagged teeth, the rough breath
Sawing in and out through the craggy mouth, the clink
Of tags approaching as the dog canters back. He’ll stoop
To do it again and again, so your walk through grass
Lasts all morning, the dog tired now in the heat,
The stick now just a wet and gnarled nub that doesn’t sail
So much as drop. And when the dog plops to the grass
Like a misbegotten turd, and even you want nothing
More than a plate of eggs at some sidewalk café, the man–
Who, too, by now has dropped even the idea of fetch
Will push you against a tree and ease his leg between
Your legs as his industrious tongue whispers
Convincingly into your mouth.


A stronger poem, I think, but every bit as lovely as morning, the best time of day, the most creative time of day, the time of day I need no alarm clock to greet. Speaking of days, maybe we need to discover the Norwegian word for “egg poems.”

Love, dogs, or eggs, may yours be a good one, no matter how much remains of it.