Tracy Smith’s Life on Mars is a strong, surprising, and often beautiful book. Its themes include family births and deaths, outer space as a metaphor for inner space, and broader political questions regarding violence and power. For many of these, the speakers’ tones show dismay, wonder, awe, with an intelligent, questioning, dissatisfied, razor-sharp voice.
The most demanding poem, the book’s masterpiece, is at its center, “The Speed of Belief,” and is focused on the death of the poet’s father, Floyd Smith. Working in a range of forms, the poem (like most in the book) weaves hard-won wisdom with heartfelt observations; it “worries” or bends the word “walk,” for example, in section three, as the speaker tries to come to terms with the cold hand of death, even as it celebrates the lessons delivered to her from the father, who exists in the hallways of her memory. The word “walk” is repeated as a verb and noun, and as a rhetorical question. Often rhetorical questions are used to control a reader’s feelings, but in this book, they are asked either to God, or to endless tracts of space where they echo back or place pressure on the reader to come up with a response.
These questions are plentiful and are the glue that binds the book’s disparate elements together: “Is God being or pure force?” is the book’s opening salvo, and they keep coming: Does God love Gold? Is It us, or what contains us? What waits where the laughter gathers? Time stops, but does it end?; and so on….
Apart from the allusion to David Bowie’s song, “Life on Mars,” the title must refer to the de-oxygenated, weightless strangeness of living in a kind of vacuum; we are bombarded with particles of information, yet all our education cannot wrestle with some mysteries: love, childbirth, political violence, etc. The book is deadly serious and should be dealt with seriously.
Even its more minor poems, such as “Savior Machine”, are handled with specificity, insight, and evocative detail. The poem reflects on a patient seeing her psychotherapist two years after her sessions have terminated, and coming to the realization that he is a mortal, with failings, like her; his power over her has dissipated, and she now sees that the healing that took place was a “human hand reaching down to lift / A pebble from [her] tongue.”
In another impressive poem, “When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me,” the speaker addresses her child in the context of the child’s conception the previous winter. It shows the ways a somewhat trivial event that occurs ever minute has the momentous gravity of any political act in life. This is a poem that stands head-to-head with any perennial favorite in English.
Other times, and here I place blame on Smith’s editors, there is a mistake in an otherwise effort at greatness. For example, in the title poem, the speaker addresses the horrific case of Josef Fritzl, the 73-year-old Austrian who held his daughter prisoner for 24 years and fathered seven children with her. The poem aims to be contemplative and severe, but there is a hinge that demands accuracy and is instead deliberately diluted to make it soft: “Lying down with the daughter, who had no choice. Like a god / Moving through a world where every face looked furtively into his…” Here, a rape is phrased as a euphemism, I think, because the diction in the lines feels Biblical and meaningful. But to say: “lying down with” is a bad choice. Later in the poem, the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison are handled with more clarity, and the speaker is only left with her rhetorical questions; she becomes aware, as does the reader, that there is no intelligence in the universe that would allow this wilderness of horrors to happen.
I appreciate the political emphasis throughout Life on Mars, and I am impressed with the ways Smith demands that her readers are with her during the harrowing, invasive interrogations of both personal and political questions. Sometimes it remains unclear or uncertain how the personal and the political come together or separate. Can there be recompense in art from all the evil Smith describes? If there is a theory here, the book plays coyly with the questions: no resolution is forthcoming.
By contrast to “Life on Mars,” in the long poem “They May Love All That He Has Chosen And Hate All That He Has Rejected,” the speaker lets a range of victims of political murder speak to their murderers in a series of letters. In my view, this is a more nuanced way to make the connection between personal and political more tangible. This poem makes a strong contribution to public history: it addresses memory studies, and the study of public landmarks and memorials in a smart way.
Life on Mars is Smith’s third book, and it reflects the trajectory of the other two, though I think this is the strongest of the three. I think this book will satisfy current Poetry Book Club members, and encourage new ones to join. Consistently surprising and demanding, Life on Mars gives materiality to Victor Martinez’s statement that “poetry is the essence of thinking.”