Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith Wins Pulitzer Prize or "We'll Be Back To The Pittsburgh Poets After This Important Message From The Universe."

My apologies to Tracy Smith, but before yesterday I hadn't heard of her. Or of Life On Mars, Duende, or The Body's Question. But when I heard that she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, I googled her and immediately fell under her spell. I've commented before about how many excellent poets and writers there are, and how difficult it is to keep up with all of their books. Life On Mars proves my point.

Smith's work is a perfect example of consilience: no matter from what category one measures it (theme, tropes, sound, typography), it is virtuosic. Her ideas about and descriptions of the universe ("It") intersect in a diction that is both musically transcendent and scientifically precise, a prosody that can be apprehended, and yet still subverts our expectations, full of elucidation and yet mystery--like the subject "ITself." And what is that subject? Everything that is! About which in section 4 of "My God, It's Full Of Stars," describing the faulty lens of the Hubble telescope and the ensuing correction that engineers made, she writes:

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. Se saw to the edge of all there is--

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

Looking into the universe to see it looking back is one of many themes of Live On Mars that Smith writes about so well. In "The Museum Of Obsolescence," after we understand the tour she's about to give of things "that would have saved us, but lived,/Instead, its own quick span, returning/To uselessness with the mute acquiescence/Of shed skin," she gives us the lines

...It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts

Ticking through our shirts.

Then later after a litany of obsolete artifacts ("the gimcracks, the naive tools," "green money, and oil in drums," "pots of honey," "books recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars," "old beliefs," the "special installations [that] come and go": "Love," "Illness:"

The last thing you see
(After a mirror--someone's idea of a joke?)

Is an image of the old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.

I will not give a complete review of this masterful collection without a more careful reading. The final section seems less organically related to the theme than the first three, although my first reading of her smart poems tells me there are still veins of underground connectivity waiting for me to mine.

The point of this posting is to get out the word about Tracy K. Smith. About Life On Mars. About the importance of reading these poems.

William Carlos Williams not withstanding, it is easy to get the news of the universe from Smith's Life On Mars--it oozes from every line. And if you died without what is found there, your death might not be more miserable. But, your life will certainly be less so for reading these poems.

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