Thursday, July 7, 2011

Epistolary Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press 2011)

Tracy K. Smith
Life on Mars

Dear R.,

I had a dream about you once in which you were hosting a slumber party for the shades of the Bront√ęs & Dorothy Wordsworth & several other luminaries of that sort. You were sharing around dishes of tea with honey & Anne & Emily had discovered reality TV, which they totally loved! Are you back from England yet? Did you find marvelous things?

I have weaknesses, dear R., I confess I have many weaknesses. Two of my weaknesses are—though you scarcely need reminders—glam rock & domestic science fiction, which is probably why sections of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars worked on me like a kind of poetic kryptonite. I mean this in a good way. I mean this in a bad way. You know what I mean.

Some poets fear proper nouns. These are the kind of poets who (in mild cases) think, like Yeats, that the right materials for poetry are only those things & ideas that have gathered a few centuries of moss & (in extreme cases) worry about things like whether readers—now & a hundred years from now—will know who Rock Hudson is (What, dear R., do you plan to be doing in 2111?). Smith, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from this particular phobia. One of the delights of this collection is the way she mixes those mossier preoccupations (God, love, death, sex, parenthood, the trajectories of certain stars) with a wide sampling of cultural detritus & personal history. Smith likes proper nouns. Here are a few of her favorites: “Charlton Heston,” “Larry Niven,” “Jupiter,” “2001,” “Tina,” “JFK,” “Albert Gaxiola,” “Brisenia Flores,” “Johanna Justin-Jinich,” “Elijah,” “Smith Street,” & (of course) “Bowie.” (Life on Mars recalls to the David Bowie song of the same name.) The poems I liked best—I thought the fourth & final section rather weaker than the first three—take up the cosmic & the personal at once: “Blast off! she likes to think, though/What comes to mind at the moment/Is earthly” (46).

There’s an obvious debt to early New York School here (Smith lives in Brooklyn)—not that that’s a bad thing. The best of Smith’s lighter poems rush forward with a dashing, intimate breathlessness that makes light of their own virtuosity. For instance, it’s hard to read the final section of “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes” without thinking of Frank O’Hara. “Bowie is among us,” Smith writes, “Right here/In New York City./In a baseball cap/And expensive jeans” (20). Dearest R., Lana Turner has collapsed!

But Smith has other moods too, other modes. In poems like “Sci-Fi” & “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she offers at once a critique of a genre & a paean to its potential. “Critique of a genre” is, perhaps, not quite right; for Smith, “science fiction” is less a genre than an epistemology—a way of knowing the world:

                        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 . . .

Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe. (7)

Here, “science fiction” means utopias & dystopias—the kind of grand, epically polarized futurisms of the 1960s & 1970s expressed in projects like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. Smith is at once admiring & suspicious of this kind of science fiction. “No edges, but curves,” Smith muses, referring to those strange & risible design elements in old movies about the future (The tenses, my dear, the tenses!). She recognizes that part of the allure of science fiction lies in its emphasis on the possible—it lasers our nostalgic impulses to a pile of ash. (The optics jibed./We saw to the edge of all there is—/So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.) But the price of the ray-guns & the silver jumpsuits is high: the poem argues that a certain kind of shallow futurism can exist only at the expense of the past. It requires us to forget history, to leave behind the weird fetish for the hardcopy of the past & our unfashionable preoccupations with species long extinct, whether they be a matter of paper or dodo birds or the events that have shaped our own experience of the world. In this kind of science fiction, the only way we can make things “scrutable and safe” is to give up the mode of knowing we call memory.

Throughout the collection, in poems like “The Museum of Obsolescence,” “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” & (most especially) the title poem, “Life on Mars,” Smith tests out modes of science fiction that might offer more effective ways of dealing with history both abstractly & personally (Many poems here function as an elegy for her father, who was a reader of Larry Niven as well as a worker on the Hubble Telescope.). I’m not sure some of the “science” part of the equation is as developed as it might be but the “fiction” application is finely limned (I’ve read several recent collections that have bypassed science fiction for science proper & none has seemed to me nearly as successful as this one.):

Tina says dark matter is just a theory. Something
We know is there, but can’t completely prove.

We move through it, bound, sensing it snatch up
What we mean to say and turn it over in its hands

Like glass sifted from the sea.

As I’ve said, I liked the last section of the collection a bit less than what comes before it—not because the poems in it are bad poems—but because the science fictional concerns are more muted there. But perhaps the phrasing of Smith’s collection merely argues that a turn to the homely, the earthly, is the logical—& perhaps, the desirable—conclusion to her investigation, that science-fiction-as-epistemology—science fiction as mourning—is not & cannot be a sustainable means of knowing the world. Her seeming affection for the cultural touchstones of the genre militates against that line of argument but, I confess, the arrangement of the poems is a strong point in its favor. It’s an optimistic collection & yet I kept thinking, of David Bowie, the collection’s household god, not only in his role as the inimitable Starman in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars but as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Have you seen that one? Bowie plays an alien secretly sent to Earth to bring back water for his dying home planet. But it’s not easy being a secret alien, not in our little oonaverse. You have to learn about fashion & sex & money & liquor & even if you figure it all out you’re still a secret alien & you probably have an addiction problem & when you reveal your true identity to your girlfriend, she probably won’t be able to deal with the real you. Mostly it’s about a person who tries to save the world and fails.

Don’t look so sad! Haven’t we been stargazing

before/after all?


Dear (r),

You say we must and must not give up memory but that is also a question of form.  I too read Life on Mars several weeks ago, but then I didn’t pack the volume before embarking on a long journey.  Coming home to your review felt rather like finding a map of a place I could swear I had visited but couldn’t say when.  The pages I’d dog-eared: unfamiliar.  The quotes I thought I had found: lost.

This is not to say that Life on Mars is forgettable!  Rather, I think Smith’s poetics resists possession: “When the storm/Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—“ (3); “Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real./Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-/Appeasable” (17); “So much we once coveted.  So much/That would have saved us, but lived,//Instead, its own quick span”;  “I’m ready/To meet what refuses to let us keep anything/For long” (57).  And all this even in a science-fictional universe!

It is possible that I am blaming Smith’s poetics for my failure of memory.  I too see the New York School connection, but miss the take-away, the versed bottle-cap-in-the-pocket, O’Hara’s “and everyone and I stopped breathing” or “which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it[.]”  But Smith’s is a cultivated strangeness—so much is given, yet something is withheld—resulting in not only elegy but also impersonation of elegy, in science fiction not co-opted, but deeply felt.  “Everything that disappears/Disappears as if returning somewhere” (24). 

You mention alien encounters.  At the end of “The Universe is a House Party,” “we” welcome our strange visitors:

How marvelous you’ve come!  We won’t flinch
At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs.  We’ll rise,

Gracile, robust.  Mi casa es su casa.  Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

Of course, it’s ours.  If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.

Dear (r), who is meant by “ours?”  And what is meant by “it?”  We are at once human and stranger; it is at once domes and universe.  Here, at last, possession is accomplished—or at least, possession by dissolution and possession by default.  

As you say, dear (r), Smith makes it new and makes it old, makes it science-fictional which means making it fictional which means making it real.  You describe the experience of reading the volume so effortlessly and yet I cannot remember reading it for the first time.  Such a lapse is unlike me.  “I am writing this so it will stay true[,]” (65) writes Smith, portraying poetry as cause, effect, and antidote to/of fragmented memory.  I am reading this so it will stay true, too.

Yours ever,