Tracy K. Smith: Life on Mars

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Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life on Mars contains many references to the man she salutes as the “Pope of Pop,” David Bowie (read one of the poems below). Smith admits she became “kind of obsessed” with Bowie’s extraterrestrial alter ego Ziggy Stardust in her thirties. He seemed to embody “the imagination as something that is capable of creating a whole new world and a whole new sense of self.” And the view back down to earth was equally captivating: “I love the sense of looking at the sad, paltry, and yet very familiar spectacle that we must make from moment to moment in our lives, and in our frenzy, as something that’s as out there as alien life.”

Smith’s interest in space also stems from her father, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. When he died in 2008, Smith tells Kurt Andersen, she looked at the Hubble’s images of deep space with new curiosity. “I always felt there was this kernel of connectedness that he and I shared,” she says, “even though we veered in very separate directions.” Other poems in the collection consider his death, as well as black holes, metaphysics, and the afterlife.

Smith’s latest book isn’t a poetry collection; it’s a memoir of her childhood in suburban California. It’s called Ordinary Light, and in it, Smith writes beautifully about her relationship with her father and taking care of her devout mother as she died from cancer. Ordinary Light comes out this spring. 

(Originally aired: April 27, 2012)

"Don't You Wonder Sometimes" — Tracy K. Smith

1.
After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being - a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure
 
That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?
 
Would I put on coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he'll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired
 
And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I'm forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I'll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.
 
2.
He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That's Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he's trademarked twice. The hours
 
Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.
 
Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?
 
The future isn't what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
Fro something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.
 
3.
Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. In a baseball cap
And expensive jeans. Ducking into
A deli. Flashing all those teeth
At the doorman on his way back up.
Or he's hailing a taxi on Lafayette
As the sky clouds over at dusk.
he's in no rush. Doesn't feel
The way you'd think he feels.
Doesn't strut or gloat. Tells jokes.
 
I've lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I'll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall. He's got
The whole world under his foot,
And we are small alongside,
Though there are occasions
When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before the rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
                                                Go ahead.

(Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press)

Music Playlist

  1. Life on Mars

    Artist: David Bowie
    Album: Honky Dory
    Label: Virgin Records
  2. Space Oddity (Instrumental)

    Artist: Fritz von Runte
    Album: Bowie2001 - A Space Oddity - The Instrumentals
    Label: Marshall Records
  3. Space Oddity

    Artist: David Bowie
    Album: Space Oddity
    Label: Parlophone UK