Life On Mars is a collection of poems from Tracy K. Smith, and considering that it won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, it hardly needs my stamp of approval. But since poetry doesn’t sell well due to the tyrannical collective-rule of prose, pop music, film, and television, I think it is important to promote such works. Moreover, this collection is ambitious, thought-provoking, relevant and fun read that breaks down barriers linked with perceived race by illuminating the common interests we all have, and highlighting how our relationship with the universe is similar regardless of the colour of our skin.
Life On Mars opens with a poem titled ‘The Weather In Space’, and ambitiously seeks to define the nature of ‘God’, asking “Is God being or pure force?” Is God, for example, wind, or the force that moves the wind? Perhaps this question has been asked before, but has it ever been asked so beautifully? This idea of the physical nature of God extends to the physical nature of humanity and is placed alongside the emotive or spiritual in the poem ‘Sci-fi’. Smith notes that sex exists “Only in the mind” and suggests that in future, a Utopian realm will emerge where the constructs of history are torn down and replaced with “nuances”.
‘Sci-fi’ sees a world where gender differences become extinct, like the dinosaurs (sentiments that are present in other poems, notably ‘The Museum Of Obsolescence’), demonstrating the archaic nature of such socially constructed archetypes, but the poem ‘My God, It’s Full Of Stars’ speaks to how these gender roles currently play out. Smith notes that the idea of “cosmic mother” is “outmoded”, but describes how it applies and how the “father”, who we might see as god, rants “with the force of Kingdom Come” and not “caring… what might snap us in its jaw”. Perhaps this is an allusion to the Christian ‘Father’ and the fire and brimstone associated with the Old Testament and the book of Revelations. Such language, Smith suggests through her poetic voice, is “built from brick and bone”, a potent observation that notes both the physical infrastructure of hegemonic institutions (via the ‘brick’) and the impact of colonialism and imperialism and the victims it has created to maintain its violent execution of its might (this demonstrated via the ‘bone’). This is made explicit with the line: “We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive”? This is placed in the realm of science fiction, when speaking of colonizing other planets, but the link with the colonization of the ‘New World’ and other territories is clear.
The poem does not simply bemoan the problems of the past, but suggests a path toward improvement. Smith recognizes that our “great error is believing we’re alone” and that we have a lack of understanding; we “only have the wish to know” our purpose. This lack of understanding and the fallacy (?) that we are alone facilitates our disconnection with others. To solve this Smith borrows from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the image of the ‘new born’ baby. Smith suggests we “view our enemies as children”. There is an ambiguity here. Imperialist powers have indeed viewed indigenous populations of the territories they have invaded as children, assuming they need care taking. This view has been the source of many problems. But, viewing our enemies as children can also negate the threat we perceive and disincline us to use such abrasive and violent force when dealing with other cultures. Assuming innocence and a lack of violent intent on the part of our enemies can lead us to more peaceful resolutions (unless Thomas Hobbes was right, in which case it could lead to more problems).
Smith also notes we “learned new words for things” and how this denoted change. This denotes an ambiguity that invites the reader to consider the potency of words. Are we to think of invented terms like ‘Negro’ as a ‘race’ categorization that reinforce the lies perpetuated by slave traders? Or words created by scientists that didn’t try to recognize and legitimize sexual identity, but rather categorize it as a disorder. Or is Smith speaking to how language is changing and moving forward. Is she speaking to how ‘Negro’ has transformed into ‘African American’, a shift that rejects the race categorization and instead embraces both heritage and nationality? Language can help to change the way we think, or reinforce old ideas, for better or for worse. Smith’s poetry draws on this and encourages the reader to recognize the power of language.
The poems in the collection are enigmatic, but none more so than ‘It & Co.’. The ‘It’ which Smith writes on could be any number of things. For me, it speaks to the kyriarchal nature of oppression, how it is “elegant/ But coy. It avoids the blunt ends”. The ‘elegant’ nature of it addresses how kyriarchal systems appear elegant with their traditions and the allure of the power they offer if accessed. It speaks to the collective Stockholm Syndrome which we suffer from in our shared cultural consciousness; how we identify with our oppressors and hope to replace them rather than remove them. We aspire to be the oppressor. We are inclined to, as Smith writes, point out fingers at oppressive systems, but these systems avoid “our fingers as we point”. The opening line is the most terrifying: “We are a part of it”. The truth of this is statement is largely ignored. We do not acknowledge our own role in kyriarchal systems. Our ‘complacent consumption’, for example, is not viewed as complicity in slavery or capitalist crimes. What is “It”? ‘It’ is enigmatic, but Smith challenges us, how ever we might read poem, to recognize our own complicity.
The election of Barack Obama led many to fallaciously suggest that America had entered a ‘post-race’ era. Smith does much to debunk this myth of ‘post-racial’ America, but there is perhaps no poem in the collection that dispels the illusion of post-racial America more than ‘They May Love All That He Has Chosen And Hate All That He Has Rejected’. The poem opens with the poetic voice: “I don’t want to hear their voices”. The poem’s speaker goes onto describe ‘their’ speech as a “rant” and rejects what “they call truth”. The speaker then suggests situating ‘them’ on the back porch that they might experience thirst and illness, and know what it is like to be refused service from a doctor for being a certain “kind”. It is unclear who ‘they’ are, but it is certain that ‘they’ are people from a perceived position of privilege who cannot relate to the experience of the oppressed. Those who endorse the idea of a ‘post-race’ America seem like ideal candidates for this position, but it is not until examining the chronology of the events referenced later in the poem that this becomes clear.
The third stanza is comprised of references to several crimes with ‘racial’ implications. One such crime is the killing of Omar Edwards. Edwards, an African American police officer, was off-duty when he pulled his gun to chase after a man who had attempted to break into his car. An on-duty officer, Andrew Dunton, saw Edwards and fatally shot him: he was not charged (Matthews). This may seem reasonable, but recent cases have seen white people in situations, similar to Edwards, shoot and kill people of colour and either be cleared of any charges, such as was the case with George Zimmerman, or not even have charges laid against them. Renisha McBride, an African American teen, was shot and killed after knocking on a stranger’s door in a white neighbourhood seeking help following a vehicular collision; police failed to press charges (Lennard). Jonathan Ferrell, also African American, was killed in a similar manner, though charges were laid in his case (Stableford). Edwards was standing his ground, but unlike his white counterparts, when he sought to defend himself, he was fatally shot. Even in court cases are treated differently: Marissa Alexander, a woman of colour, who found guilt of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot, though the setence was later overturned (Teinabeso). The inconsistencies are glaring and persistent, evidenced by the fact that such trends have persisted several years after Smith published her work.
Smith includes crimes whose prejudicial motivations are more overt. Stephen Tyronne Johns, for example, was the victim of a more overt attack. James von Brunn shot and killed Johns in an attack on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was eventually acquitted of charges due to reason of mental defect. Such dismissals were not forth coming when Ted Kaczynski, a ‘domestic terrorist’ who had conspiratorial views similar to Bunn’s. Smith includes the experiences of other people of colour with the murders of Raul and Brisenia Flores. The Hispanic father-and-daughter couple were citizens of the United States. Their home was invaded by members of Minutemen American Defense, an anti-immigrant group. Though the group claimed robbery was the motive, the bigoted sentiments of the group were overt and, in this case at least, the group was charged and found guilty. Smith is careful to select events that happened after the election to demonstrate that whilst some white voters are comfortable voting for a person of colour, this does not mean that prejudices have been suddenly expunged from American consciousness.
Smith writes that hate “spreads itself out thin” and is something “they swear could disappear altogether”, but it is clear through the examples which Smith provides, that such hatred has not disappeared and recent events demonstrates that this hatred persist, dispelling the myth of ‘post-racial’ America. This is reinforced by the fact that while some cases end with convictions, many do not even see the inside of a courtroom, demonstrating that not only does such prejudice still exist, but the judicial system often facilities it.
I do not feel like I have access to all the nuances present within the collection. It is dense and beautiful and full of meaning, but there is an ambiguity that matches the ambition of the work and an enigmatic quality that is engineered into the work. The spacing, for example, is curious. Some poems are single spaces, some are double spaced. Some lines read like prose, and others are short, poetic lines. Metre and rhyme seem as though they are abandoned, but there is a clear form and structure to many of the poems as line numbers create symmetrical stanzas and epic lengths are used for some lines even when rhyming couplets are abandoned. The work evades categorization. It is not as obtuse as language poetry and avoids the esoteric, inviting a number or readers to enter into the conversation, while providing the depth required to stimulate active reading from those who wish to dig into the text with deep analysis. Though I do not endorse awards that try to quantify the quality of one piece of art alongside another, the merits and genius of this work are apparent and it is clear as to why Smith was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this collection.