We’re kind of always searching for gods— Gauloises, girls and guys, stiff drinks and celebrities. Tracy K. Smith begins Life on Mars with the question, “Is God being or pure force? The wind/ Or what commands it?” Most often I find myself trying to tease the subtext from what I read, but she pretty boldly announces it in the beginning, and the rest of the text winnows into narrative details as it progresses. Even the Cone nebula on the cover looks like a face searching upward. According to Wikipedia, it’s also known as the Jesus Christ nebula “because of its resemblance to Jesus with his hands in a prayer.” I literally didn’t know that until just now.
A lot of the reviews I’ve read talk about how the book is an elegy for her father. I think this assumption is dangerous because Life on Mars isn’t an autobiography: it’s a book of poems. The speaker isn’t Tracy K. Smith, IMO, but more like a reflection or projection of her—some other voice. I don’t presume to be an authority on writing, or to be good at it or whatever, but I do write all the time and there is a reason my zine is called “Hey Teebs” and not “Hey Tommy.” It’s a kind of alter ego I guess. It lets you be your coolest, wisest, most emotional, desperate, vain, weird version of yourself.
Tracy writes a lot of reflections (and you think about it, the writing process is itself based on reflection) though mirrors, telescopes, the heavens, God reflecting us, celebrities reflecting us, us reflecting our parents—reflection as recollection, as projection, empathy, dreams, divinity, echoes, as the reciprocal process of art and writing to viewers and readers. For example, “We grind lenses to impossible strength,/ Point them toward the future, and dream of beings” (13); “Does God love gold?/ Does he shine back/ At himself…” (15); and moments like, “I spent two years not looking/ Into the mirror in his office” (22); “What heat burns without touch,/ And what does it become?” (33)—as in, what happens when there’s nothing to push up against? No one to laugh at our inside jokes? Does that make us ghosts?
Recently I was talking with a friend about breakups and lost jobs and really anything that takes the wind out of your future (or a possible future). I asked her if there was a way to feel better about the disappointment that occurs when something is taken away from you, that you never really owned to begin with. And she asked, would I rather go through life without my imagination?
From the rest of “”Weather in Space,” which I quoted above:
“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.”
I should also note that I typo’d “lose” to “love,” which is pretty deep but has nothing to do with the book and everything to do with me. Besides the big God question that carries the momentum of the opening sequences, another big thing I noticed was the abundance of “it,” which had me continually scouring the lines for antecedents. Now that is absolute brilliance: by elegantly destabilizing my experience of the text, Smith had me acting just like the speaker of the poems— eyes darting every which way, tracing the end of lines, turning pages back and forth and connecting dots. I can’t say I know what “it” is but I know the “it” is there. Even if it’s unnamable, or even unknowable— like for the character in “My God, It’s Full of Stars”: “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?”
Which, a professor once told me, is poetry: the expression of something or some feeling or some experience for which we don’t yet have a word. It’s a thing that carries you forward.