Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars” is a collection of poetry dealing mainly in the search for a sense of purpose and the nature of people. The books is something of an elegy as a whole with many poems pertaining to death and the author’s struggle with the loss of her father. The poems are at once poignant and gentle in tone and leave questions than can only be answered in multiple readings. The book is segmented in four parts that travel through different topics and types of poetry. The mood ranges from passionate accounts of Orwellian politics to soft recollections of a lovers embrace; throughout the book Smith brings in references to pop culture, science, and technology that incorporate seamlessly with her words.
The first poem in the collection, before section one, is entitled, The Weather in Space (pg. 3). This is a short poem with seven lines and spaces between each line.
Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we’re certain to lose, so alive
Faces radiant with panic
As the first poem in the book it sums up the primary focus of the works in its exploration of loss, grieving, and recovery. The questions posed about the nature of God become recurring themes in the following sections, especially One and Four. The symbolism includes the image of earthly possessions sprawled out like gangly dolls, a reference possibly meant to bring about a sense of nostalgia which this poem does quite well. The final lines cement the message that this is about loss and life, the idea that once something is lost, it can no longer belong to anyone anymore brings a sense of fear to the poem. The last line combines radiance (a word that brings to mind beautiful light) with panic and makes for a description of the adrenaline one feels when something is lost.
Part one is made up of eleven poems, ranging in length from three stanzas to a five page piece broken up into parts. These poems are mainly concerned with science, space, technology, and God. There are several referenced to gold and stars as well as allusions to science fiction both in the titles, such as My God, it’s Full of Stars (a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey) as well as in the poem themselves.
Near the middle of the first grouping of poems is The Museum of Obsolescence (pg. 14). The term obsolescence is used to describe the state of being wherein something is still functional but no longer wanted or needed. The title brings to mind a room full of obsolete things, like a junk store or antiques store. It’s a very wistful title making it seem like even if the things aren’t needed they are still preserved.
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale...