With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, this 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection from the US Poet Laureate blends pop culture, history, elegy, anecdote, and sociopolitical commentary to illustrate the oddities of contemporary existence.
Its alternating cosmic breadth and intimate focus derives from the shared situation of poets and astronomers, squinting to glimpse immensity: 'bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.' Smith’s own poetic focus, though polished, like the lenses of the Hubble, 'to an impossible strength,' is often directed to the here and now: the book is by turns intimate, even confessional, regarding private life in light of its potential extermination, and resoundingly political, warning of a future that 'isn’t what it used to be,' the refuse of a party piled with 'postcards / And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim' ... Smith’s central conceit allows her to see us, our moment, as specks in the future’s rearview mirror. Futures and pasts are, in astronomy as in poetry, all mixed up ... The issues of power and paternalism suggest the deep ways in which this is a book about race.
She doesn’t try to reconcile the messes in our heads. In Life on Mars she celebrates our confusing, question-riddled relationship with the universe ... We’re pulled between poems of dark, distant futures and the retro-futuristic worlds of previous generations. And as we accumulate a broader picture of space, Smith turns inward and become increasingly intimate. Other poems focus on her late father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope. In her grief she finds herself riddled with yet more questions about the state of that that is absent ... From the cosmos to the personal, Tracy Smith reminds us of the presence of absent forces. Space is not empty, but rather a host of our projections and ungraspable things.
Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept — or at least endure — the universe’s mystery ... Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant ... The end of Life on Mars is less successful than the beginning ... Smith’s desire to write about injustice is commendable, but her approach can be haphazard ... Life on Mars concludes with another group of poems on miscellaneous subjects, but here the concerns are more lighthearted, personal and domestic ... There are certainly some fine poems here — 'When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me' is a gorgeous and ecstatic sonnet — but after the intensity and focus of the opening sequences, some of these poems feel like also-rans ... In Life on Mars, Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition. It’s not easy to be so convincing in both the grand gesture and the reverent contemplation of a humble plate of eggs, and the early successes of this collection far outweigh its later missteps.