Life on Mars: Poems

Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf, $15 trade paper (86p) ISBN 978-1-55597-584-5
Laughlin Award–winner Smith's third collection blends pop culture, history, elegy, anecdote, and sociopolitical commentary to illustrate the weirdness of contemporary living. The book's title, borrowed from a David Bowie song, hints at the recurrent use of science fiction and alternate realities (which turn out to mirror this one all too well) throughout the book. For Smith, life is laced with violence and a kind of dark humor, as in "The Museum of Obsolescence," where, "in the south wing, there's a small room/ Where a living man sits on display." In another poem, laughter "skids across the floor/ Like beads yanked from some girl's throat." Poems set on space shuttles or in alternate realities manage to speak about an eerily familiar present; the title poem, which includes everything from "dark matter" and "a father.../ who kept his daughter/ Locked in a cell for decades" to Abu Ghraib is proof that life is far stranger and more haunting than fiction. "Who understands the world," Smith asks in these poems and sequences, "and when/ Will he make it make sense? Or she?" (May)
Reviewed on: 03/21/2011
Release date: 05/01/2011
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