‘Life on Mars’ Author Explores Humans’ Relationship With Universe Through Poetry

May 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
"Life on Mars," Tracy K. Smith's third book, explores the cosmos through words. The Princeton creative writing professor and poet reflects on the relationship between our lives and the universe at her Brooklyn home.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, as the Endeavour rockets into space, a poet here on Earth explores the cosmos through words.

She’s Tracy K. Smith, a creative writing professor at Princeton University. And her recently released third book, “Life on Mars,” reflects on the relationship between our lives and the universe.

We sat down with Smith recently at her home in Brooklyn.

TRACY K. SMITH, “Life on Mars”: I grew up in northern California in a town called Fairfield, which is kind of exactly between San Francisco and Sacramento, a small suburb. And I’m the youngest of five children.

The last section of the poem is directly about my father. It begins when my father worked on the Hubble space telescope. And it really was my attempt — or the opportunity that I took to go backwards and think about that moment in our family, when my father was still this all-powerful figure who would live forever and the questions that were being asked, not only by the scientists and engineers, but also the children.

And I remember the pride with which he opened this volume of these — these first amazing photos that showed us things that we had only imagined in fictional terms before. So much of my poetry begins with something that I can describe in visual terms, so thinking about distance, thinking about how life begins and what might be watching us.

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“My father spent whole seasons bowing before the oracle eye, hungry for what it would find. His face lit up whenever anyone asked. And his arms would rise as if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons for peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

“We learned new words for things. The decade changed. 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. We saw to the edge of all there is, so brutal and alive. It seemed to comprehend us back.”

I didn’t think that I was setting out to write a book about God and about death and about the finite nature of our lives, but those are the questions that were really on the surface for me.

For me, a poem is an opportunity to kind of interrogate myself a little bit and see in what ways I’m complicated by situations like that, or even, I don’t know, like somehow connected to in ways that might be uncomfortable.

“We are a part of it, not guests. Is it us or what contains us? How can it be anything but an idea, something teetering on the spine of the number I? It is elegant, but coy. It avoids the blunt ends of our fingers as we point. We have gone looking for it everywhere, in bibles, in bandwidths, blooming like a wound from the ocean floor. Still, it resists the matter of false vs. real. Unconvinced by our zeal, it is unappeasable. It is like some novels, vast and unreadable.”

The other thing that was happening during the time I was writing this book was I became pregnant with my daughter. And that was another big it that, in some ways, I was really grateful for, because it gave me a sense that, not only is there this ever-after that our loved ones disappear into, but there’s some source that might be generating other people, other, you know, loves.

And, so, it was a really beautiful kind of cyclical thing that I was able to — to write into a little bit.

RAY SUAREZ: You can watch more of our interview with Tracy K. Smith and see her read other poems on our website.