“So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”

I first ran into Tracy K. Smith’s collection Life on Mars through a National Public Radio interview. It fascinated me that there was a poet writing a collection that seemed in the vein of what I want to produce for my thesis, and I immediately ordered it. As an investigation of the human in the face of grief, it is excellent; as an investigation of humanity’s place in the universe, it is a little bit disappointing. While Smith does interrogate a human understanding of life and death, and the process of coming to terms with dying, the collection is much more centered on that issue than the questions I am interested in. These questions aside, there are a couple of poems which question the human locus within the universe, and it is these poems (“Sci-Fi” and “My God, it’s Full of Stars”) I would like to examine more closely here. “Sci-Fi” polishes up the crystal ball and looks into a future of humanity, while “My God, it’s Full of Stars” investigates the question of life elsewhere in the universe, our relationship to it, and concludes with Nietzsche’s abyss staring right back at us. These two particular poems intrigue me because they remain grounded in a perspective from the human-scale viewpoint; it could reasonably be argued that the group of poems I am pursuing currently lacks this perspective.

Smith’s poem “Sci-Fi” is short, a series of couplets and a final single line. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in science fiction tropes. From the first line, Smith drives the reader toward one open and unending possibility. At the same time, she keeps the reader nailed down in humanity through the aforementioned tropes: from the androgynous body-form to reappropriations of common words, from the death of the book to agelessness to space habitation. The important thing about these tropes is they are still centered on human perception. For example, “Sex//…will gratify/only the mind” (8-10)[1] speaks directly to one of our species’ central preoccupations, and also tells the reader that it is no longer necessary. Smith is, at the same time, reassuring the reader that even in this distant future there will still be sex. She reassures again that there will still be “the oldest among us” (14) who will remember the nuance history becomes, and that there will still exist “households and nursing homes” (16). In other words, even though her projection is set “eons from even our own moon” (19), the perspective Smith writes from is distinctly human. Despite the first-person plural narrator which creates psychic distance, the psyche the narrator represents still originates from within the human, and offers reassurances despite the vast distance of time.

In addition to this human-framed perspective, Smith uses a few other techniques to ensure the poem functions well within that perspective. As noted above, the poem is fairly short, stretching only 21 lines. There is not too much the poet can cram into a space so short, and it physically restrains her from overburdening the reader with details. Instead, the reader is presented with just the right details: sex, memory, households implying family, and longevity. Smith also stretches each of these details out over several of the couplets; she allows the poem to breathe, and the reader to breathe within the poem. There are not many metaphors to stifle the reader, or many grandiose word choices, nor are there violently different representations of human existence. Smith also refrains from using what many would consider “difficult” formal poetic techniques such as meter and rhyme scheme; each of the lines ends where it makes sense, or where it creates a little tension, but not according to any specific rule. These choices result in the poem existing the same way in which it ends: “scrutable and safe” (21). Although it may be so, this is not to say that the poem does not function well as a poem. It says that people will still be people, no matter how far away or into the future they may end up; it says that humanity will go on despite death.

Though “Sci-Fi” may be “scrutable and safe,” Smith’s next poem is considerably more complex. “My God, it’s Full of Stars” stretches over five pages in five distinct sections. Not only does Smith write a long poem here, but she also varies the form, subject, and perspective among each of the sections. The progression in form is interesting here, as Smith writes more formally in the first section of tercets, using both ending rhymes and internal rhymes, and maintaining the pace of reading. Section two is also tercets, though the rhymes become more subtle and nuanced, and the lines much longer. In the third section she abandons the tercet all together, and instead forms two long double-spaced stanzas. This progression mirrors the content of the sections as well, into the expansive matter of section three, which begins “perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone” (1). This third section is perhaps the closest to my own poems I see in Smith’s collection, a galactic scale of questioning whether life exists outside our own tiny planet. As in “Sci-Fi”, Smith creates space here to allow the reader into the poem, both physical space on the page and cognitive space through an accessible diction. And yet she still grounds the expansive inside her mourning, returns to her father’s death and the cause of it, “a lit match to the bowl of his pipe/for the first time” (20-1). This return resets the perspective from the vast and grandiose to the specific and personal, reattaching to the human perspective.

Though section three is certainly less formal than the preceding sections, Smith still capitalizes on the use of sound and rhythm through each line. Section four offers yet another perspective on the human understanding of the universe, presenting both the final scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 as well as the manufacturing that went into them. Kubrick is known for formal constructions, and so the section reasserts some formality, back to the concrete reality of the set and the “costumes go[ing] back on their racks” (19). The movie serves as a metaphor here: a human construction of imaginary “what-ifs” which always must return to the human present. The return to the set and out of the imagination at the end of section four leads into the closest-perspective section of the poem. In section five, the speaker clearly becomes the first person narrator, recounting the father’s job, his excitement with it, and framing it within historical events. Mirroring this “I” speaker, Smith adds “i” sounds throughout this section of the poem. The section concludes with a jarring return to the vast perspective of a successful Hubble Space Telescope, which “saw to the edge of all there is—//so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” (16-17). The arc of “My God, it’s Full of Stars” concludes with a discontinuity which mirrors that of mourning. Time and space come unhinged in our human perspective, and the reader is no longer relaxing in a space “scrutable and safe.”

While not entirely what I expected, Smith’s contemplation of mourning couched inside the sublimity of the universe holds much for me to learn from. Her ability to ground the vastness or sublime within the human perspective is a skill which I am still exploring. The locus of humanity within the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe still has much space to explore within it. Smith’s take on these questions in Life on Mars grounds itself within her own obsessions and the loss of her father. However, the techniques she uses to invite her readers in – not to challenge them but to share with them – holds a great deal of relevance to my own obsessions and perspective.




Works Cited

Smith, Tracy K.  “Sci-Fi”.  Life on Mars.  Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.  Print.  7.

—.  “My God, it’s Full of Stars”.  Life on Mars.  Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.  Print.  8-12.

[1] Here and following, references are to line numbers within the poem.