A collection of poetry as wide-ranging as the cosmos, Life on Mars is a thoughtful exploration of space, death, and the complexities of existence. It is not a light thing to question what it is to be human, with all our faults and frailties, yet Tracy K. Smith does so with great tenderness and a sense of wonder. Her interrogations of the connections between us — between man and woman, woman and self, self and universe, universe and humanity — are interwoven with imagery from David Bowie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The overarching experience of the collection is that of floating through the vacuum of space, contemplating life on Earth while watching the planet turn somewhere high above or far below.
Among the standouts of the collection for me are the poems that address current events. The titular poem, “Life on Mars,” alludes to the Fritzl family case of abduction and incest as well as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, while simultaneously balancing family dynamics, love, sexual assault, and the oddities of space. “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected” — my favorite poem in the collection — features a section formatted as postcards written by various victims of shootings to their murderers. Smith connects these larger events with personal tragedies and relationships, with astrophysical phenomena such as dark matter and gravity. You know how Bowie’s “Space Oddity” sounds? I feel the same listening to that as I do reading these poems: cold and distanced from Earth’s thoroughly human presence, yet tethered to it by the lonely astronaut’s own human nature.
In the midst of these universal ponderings, Smith hones in on everyday life, nature, money, music, touch. These poems circle from life-creating sex to life after death, questioning what a lover’s hands did before finding her body, how a man who tires his dog out playing fetch will treat a woman. “The Speed of Belief,” which handles Smith's own father’s death, is particularly poignant in its depiction of proximity to the dying as well as the need to worry about what happens when a loved one is gone. Though less grand in scope, these poems are no less filled with wonder, making even the most casual of interactions appear as awesome as the Cone Nebula on the book’s cover.
From the Bible to Ziggy Stardust, humans have long been preoccupied with the unknown universe and the meaning of life. While Smith doesn’t claim to know all the answers, her poetry provides us with a star chart to navigate this world and the lonely space beyond it that lives always in a small corner of our imagination.