Tonight, as Women Writers Wednesday and Poet-A-Day collide so beautifully, enjoy a review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in a thoughtful review by Christa M. Forster. You can read one of Christa Forster’s poems from last year’s Poem-A-Day series here.
My God, It’s Full of Duende
A Review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars
What do you need to know about Tracy K. Smith’s third book of poems, Life on Mars, before you read it? Do you need to know that it won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry? Maybe you need to know that her two previous books — The Body’s Question and Duende — won the Cave Canem Prize and the James Laughlin Award, respectively. Maybe all you need to know is that any poet bold enough to title a book Duende better be worth her salt. Trust me (and the Cave Canem, James Laughlin and Pulitzer prize committees): Tracy K. Smith is worth it.
In the first poem in Life on Mars, “The Weather in Space,” Smith announces what kind of multiverse she’s writing from: our very contemporary one. In the present, which now more than ever feels simultaneously like the future and the past, “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.” Right after this, Smith begins the book again with the poem “Sci-Fi,” which alludes to an impending, existential cosmic storm: our technology’s distractions and demands — specifically our rapacious social media — have seduced us away from our necessary solitudes and productive boredoms, resulting in a psychosocial landscape that bodes the kind of loneliness visible in every sex club. Smith illuminates this emotional apocalypse in stunning, declarative couplets with the command of a matriarch-savant:
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.
In this first half of “Sci-Fi,” the reader recognizes the distinct grip of Smith’s poetic capabilities. Her poems swing musically from image to philosophical statement to narrative, to image again. Her mastery affects the reader with a cumulative weight that must be born; the weight is painful, but, even more than that, deeply and strangely pleasurable. In the multi-sectioned tour-de-force, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Smith’s felicitous angst recalls another end-of-an-era writer: William Shakespeare. Here’s section 4 — in its entirety — from this poem:
In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on….
In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
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?
On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
* * *
A lesser poet might have ended this section with the foreboding question. After all, isn’t this what everyone wants to know: Does one’s life end at the end of what one can name? But she is not a lesser poet. With Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith establishes herself in the pantheon of visionary poets. Her impulse to look at and name history — the history of her era, which is our era — is richly rewarding and generative; in fact, her work is full of that ineffable life-blood of solitude and wonder — full, that is, of duende.
Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.