Reviews for Life on Mars : Poems

ForeWord Magazine Reviews 2011 March/April

It is as alien as one might suppose, Life On Mars, and yet there are familiarities--David Bowie, head cocked; Universal Studios, prolific as ever. In her third collection of poetry, Tracy K. Smith, takes us on a cinematic journey to the ends of the galaxy. Her collection begins at the end--of history and space, Earth and humanity--a sweeping panorama. Slowly she pulls in, frame by frame, to the present, the near past, the life of her father, deceased, the neighbors, her lover taking the dog for a walk, until she is as near to a thing as can be, the life growing inside her--a world fantastic as Mars, "The room is red, like ourselves /on the inside." Her poems traverse dark matter--the soul, god, cruelty--a journey lit by stars.

In her expansive and exquisitely spun poem, "My God It's Full of Stars," Smith interposes cosmic stellar light with Hollywood film stars--the pictures captured by the Hubble Telescope with those of the silver screen; Stan Kubrick's 2001; the films of Charlton Heston; zombie movies--it is as if we are looking through the kind of telescope that uses mirrors. She sets the stage in the first line: "We like to think of it as parallel to what we know." She leaps through the parallels, and when she sets down for a moment in concrete time and place, even the president is a Hollywood actor: "These were the Reagan years, / When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled / To view our enemies as children." Despite these familiarities, the poems throughout this collection orbit around what we don't know--what is out there, beyond us, between us, and after.

Like the best films, Smith's "camera work" is smooth and unobtrusive. Her language moves with ease, its artifice covert, the use of form is deft and subtle, the sounds--a mirthful tumbling in the mouth. Many of her poems are studded with a wry humor--"It & Co," "The Universe is a House Party." In "The Universe as a Primordial Scream," the poet wonders why the children one floor up are permitted to make such a galactic racket every morning. She speculates "Whether it is merely an experiment / Their parents have been conducting / Upon the good crystal, which must surely / Lie shattered to dust on the floor."

A protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and a member of the Creative Writing Faculty at Princeton University, Tracy K. Smith, is no stranger to awards; her work has been published widely. This latest work is an elegant exploration of a metaphysical universe beyond what can be known and the strange wonder of life as we know it.

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Library Journal Reviews 2011 May #2

Hypnotic and brimming with irony, the poems in Smith's latest volume aren't so much about outer space as the interior life and the search for the divine. The first poem sets the direction, asking, "Is God being or pure force? The wind/ Or what commands it?" and there are strong religious overtones throughout. Poems bear titles like "The Savior Machine," "Sacrament," and "The Soul," and whether the poet is alluding to Arthur C. Clark's 2001 or memorializing her father, the whole feels reminiscent of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Smith, a Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner for The Body's Question, works mostly in free verse, with a few terza rima and several sonnets mixed in, and her poems are grounded in everyday experiences like eating or walking on a street or in the woods. This soon leads to dreamlike states of consciousness in which the dead communicate with the living. Smith channels the voice of her deceased father, her unborn child, or people in the news who send postcards to those who killed them. VERDICT The spiritual motif running through these poems adds a stunning dimension that will please many readers.--Diane Scharper, Towson Univ., MD

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 March #3

Laughlin Award-winner Smith's third collection blends pop culture, history, elegy, anecdote, and sociopolitical commentary to illustrate the weirdness of contemporary living. The book's title, borrowed from a David Bowie song, hints at the recurrent use of science fiction and alternate realities (which turn out to mirror this one all too well) throughout the book. For Smith, life is laced with violence and a kind of dark humor, as in "The Museum of Obsolescence," where, "in the south wing, there's a small room/ Where a living man sits on display." In another poem, laughter "skids across the floor/ Like beads yanked from some girl's throat." Poems set on space shuttles or in alternate realities manage to speak about an eerily familiar present; the title poem, which includes everything from "dark matter" and "a father.../ who kept his daughter/ Locked in a cell for decades" to Abu Ghraib is proof that life is far stranger and more haunting than fiction. "Who understands the world," Smith asks in these poems and sequences, "and when/ Will he make it make sense? Or she?" (May)

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