Although it’s impossible to know what goes into the Pulitzer poetry committee’s decision each year (having read every nominated book, would you have chosen the same? what arguments did the readers make on each volume’s behalf?), their choice is an occasion for readers of poetry to encounter a contemporary book of poems that has already been given a special stamp of approval, something like canonization-in-advance. It’s easy enough to dismiss a contemporary book based on the obscurity of the writer, press, title, or series. Indeed, it can be difficult to choose a one to read, given that so many are published each year, and so few stand out as ones that we ought to prioritize on our reading lists. The Pulitzer Prize and other major awards are a simple way for many readers to manage the chaos. As a result, those books chosen enter the national discourse in a way others (especially poetry) do not, so reading them involves us in a larger dialogue with other readers. It should be noted that winning a major award also opens a poet up to criticism the likes of which they would not otherwise encounter. Every reader of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is, to some degree, sizing her up, passing judgment, taking an explicit or silent stance as to her worthiness of the immense recognition the Pulitzer grants. With all that in mind I wanted to read her book innocently, as a book rather than as a Pulitzer-Prize-Winning-Book, and to share some impressions with our readers.
Perhaps I was disheartened initially to read a little about Tracy K. Smith and realize how successful a poet can be and still be widely unknown, even to avid poetry readers. Life on Mars is her third book; her first, The Body’s Question, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and her second, Duende, won the James Laughlin Award. By my reckoning, these are serious laurels, besides which, she teaches at Princeton. And yet, the phrase I heard from many educated lips when the 2012 Pulitzer was announced was, “I’ve never heard of her.” At the end of her book I arrived at the acknowledgements page and learned one reason for Smith’s obscurity: while some of the poems from Life on Mars appeared in print magazines (including Bat City Review, Cimarron Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker), almost as many appeared in video format on a far less-visible website (rolexmentorprotege.com), as audio on a BBC radio show, and on brooklynpoetry.com. Although as a poet I am amazed that so many poems from the book were published in unconventional ways, I can’t help but think this choice shows a special commitment on Smith’s part to alternative media as a forum for poetry. It is also, of course, an aesthetic statement.
The poems in Life on Mars, too, are an interesting mixture of the tropes we often see as dichotomies: high and popular art, science and spirituality, the timely and the eternal. I admired the book most for its political critiques of contemporary American society. These are not always the most elegant poems, but they are sometimes boldly experimental. The two poems that interested me the most, the title piece and “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” are both political poems in multiple sections that move between a narrating speaker, figures from current events, and pundits commenting on the events those figures are involved in. “Life on Mars” begins, “Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people / When what holds them together isn’t exactly love.” Here, we have Smith in two modes she works in throughout the book successfully: the intimate speaker interacting with her loved ones and the inquisitive mind asking philosophical and spiritual questions of science. Most of the poems engage science, especially astronomy, in some way, and we have, by the time we read this poem, learned that the poet’s father worked on the Hubble Telescope. From the opening lyrics on, the speaker approaches science not just as a matter of intellectual curiosity, but also as a topic with the gravity of family, and love, at its core. After a beautiful elegy to her father, Smith’s questions about dark matter seem fraught with the love of a child toward a parent and the struggle to make sense of loss.
“Life on Mars” moves from an intimate scene, a conversation with epistemological questions, to a section that takes place in the home of a man who’s kept his daughter locked in a cellar for years as a prisoner and sex slave. Next, the poem switches back to Tina’s contemplation of dark matter, then transitions to a dramatic monologue in the voice of a woman about to be gang-raped, before returning again to the philosophical speaker. Later we encounter a section about the soldiers in Abu Ghraib Prison humiliating the inmates, a section interspersed with comments we can discover belong to Rush Limbaugh, and in the penultimate section we find a lyric governed by the anaphora “the earth.” This section is almost without syntax and seems generated by the eye of a bewildered person seeing, “The earth beneath us. The earth / Around and above…The earth caked to mud in the belly / Of a village with no food.” The final section returns to Tina and the ongoing meditation on the space between people, “When it is love, / What happens feels like dumb luck. When it’s not / We’re riddled with bullets,” and ends with the questions, “And what / If what it is, and what sends it, has nothing to do / With what we can’t see? Nothing whatsoever / To do with a power other than muscle, will, sheer fright?” While this poem’s sections are only nominally connected, and while the strain of the philosophical meditation with Tina could be more powerfully and compellingly realized, the ambition of this poem is striking, and the final gesture of those questions (in light of all that the poet has attempted to weave together and see as part of a whole) touches me as the sincere queries of a person who wants to believe in a compassionate God and who struggles with the evidence of reality.
I also admired this poem as one unafraid of its own deadly gravitas. The second most-common motif in the book is David Bowie, who is at times named directly or referenced in italics. Even “Life on Mars” takes its title from one of his songs. I prefer the oblique reference to what I find Bowie’s burdensome and distracting presence in poems such as “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” in which the poet seems to back off her own serious material to reminding us the poem is also about David Bowie, and therefore not too depressing. In “Life on Mars,” Smith is courageous about what troubles her and Bowie is subservient to that, rather than somehow giving her permission to discuss weighty philosophical and political topics because his unexpected presence in the poem blunts the edge of her critique.
In another startling poem, “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” Tracy K. Smith engages five murders reported by the New York Times in May and June of 2009. They are not very well-known cases, and they are not united by any single irony: in one, an on-duty police officer kills a black off-duty police officer who is going after a man breaking into his car, in another an abortion doctor is killed by an abortion protestor, in another a Wesleyan student kills a classmate after writing anti-Semitic rants in his journal, militiamen (and a woman) kill a family at random in their home, and an eighty-eight-year-old man opens fire in the Holocaust Museum, killing a security guard and then being killed himself. The disparate nature of these killings, detailed in the notes, is not dwelt upon in the poem, which treats them all as what their grouping suggests: examples of the senselessness and profane exploitation inherent to violence and murder. The poem’s first section establishes the speaker’s preoccupation with the news stories, which is their foremost unifying force: “I don’t want to hear their voices. / To stand sucking my teeth while they/ Rant.” In its early sections, the poem moves through meditations on hate and the journey of death, and in part three names the characters. Part four, “In Which the Dead Send Postcards to Their Assailants from America’s Most Celebrated Landmarks,” produces just that: notes penned, victim to assailant, from all over the US, in tones ranging from sweet (as with the eight-year old girl) to restrained to near-indifferent (as the cop who says “I don’t think of you often,” which of course affirms that he does think of him). The poem returns in its final two sections to a contemplation of the assailants, who are the fascination and problem of the poem, trying to make sense of their motives and their souls given that the speaker’s own motives and soul fail to explain them. The act of imagination stands as the only recourse for a connection between the self and the murderers she’s read about.
Though it is much more formally experimental than “Life on Mars,” “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” is similarly unafraid of its seriousness and less-refined than the many of the poems in the book. Still, these pieces are probably the most compelling reason to read Life on Mars: they are risky tonally, formally, and in terms of content, and they wear that risk, the roughness around the edges, candidly. There are also poems in Life on Mars that are elegant and heart-rending, (the elegy for Smith’s father, “The Speed of Belief” is actually my favorite) and a few that are neither bold and risky nor very beautiful. Without speculating upon the reasons of the Pulitzer committee, I say this book, like its predecessor, Duende (which is interesting for its own reasons), is worth reading as an example of a vital, feeling American voice in a poet of worldly, intelligent scope.
—Jasmine V. Bailey