Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, published by Graywolf Press on 30 percent post-consumer wastepaper, is a collection sliced up into four parts, and it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.  In the first section there are two parallels that Smith draws — the one between poet and astronomer searching for meaning in vastness and the parallels between the physical and spiritual world.  Like in “Cathedral Kitsch,” the narrator speaks of the gleam of gold in the church and wonders if God is there shining back on himself, but by the end of the poem, the narrator remarks on man’s stamp on the church and on faith.  “I feel/Man here.  The same wish/That named the planets.//Man with his shoes and tools,/His insistence to prove we exist/Just like God, in the large/And the small, the great//”

Some of the best lines come in “My God, It’s Full of Stars” where the narrator talks about God and the great unknown alongside the physical world in which she lives.  Rather than compare the two in pros and cons, the narrator takes a third path:

"Not letting up, the frenzy of being.  I want it to be
wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And scaled tight, so nothing escapes.  Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father" (page 10)

There is a sense of wide-eyed, childlike wonder about the world and the unknown space and world of God. Rather than shrink from either, the narrator embraces their possibilities and revels in the possibilities.  Part two speaks for itself and pays homage to a father lost and time with him too short.  The collection then gives way to more timely matters in the news from a young woman kept as a sex slave to her father in the basement of a home he shared with his wife to the Abu Ghraib prisoners who were savagely mistreated by soldiers under too much pressure.  In the final section of the collection, Smith opens up her verse at full throttle to explore the infinite energy and being of all in the universe and the pulse of that energy as it continues to churn.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith is well worth the prize it has won.  Her verse is well paced and masterful in how it draws parallels and leaves larger issues open ended for readers to think more about on their own.  She’s taken larger than life issues and honed in on them with a sharp eye, boiling them down to what really matters through personal accounts and a satiric remixing of facts from the news and more.  Definitely a collection for book clubs and to return to again and again when readers are feeling a bit enamored of the great unknowns.

About the Poet:

Tracy K. Smith was raised in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She studied at Harvard, where she joined the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for writers of color. She went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University.

This is the 24th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


  1. You are certainly reading some serious stuff right now. I’m impressed with your interpretations as well as how you manage to find the time.

    • I think these serious books are coming at a good time for me given the personal loss I’ve experienced. They are bringing me some understanding.

  2. I’m right alongside Anna in my thinking that this one is over my head for sure.

  3. I enjoy wild-eyed childlike wonder. Thank goodness I know you. You are my poetry connection. If not for you, I’d be an uncultivated nudge.

  4. Somehow I missed this one – I’ll check it out soon!

  5. I love — the cover, the physical book, the excerpts you shared — heard about this around the Pulitzers and promptly forgot — and I’m so glad you reviewed it. I need this book and stat.

  6. Sounds like this could be way over my head, but I’d be willing to give it a try.

  7. I really do need to try to explore more poetry. This sounds like it might be a good book to try.