So, why do we insist
He has vanished, that death ran off with our
Everything worth having? Why not that he was
Swimming only through this life — this slow,
Graceful crawl, shoulders, rippling,
Legs slicing away at the waves, gliding
Further into what life itself denies?
He is only gone so far as we can tell. Though
when I try, I see the white cloud of his hair
In the distance like an eternity.
— It's Not, in the book Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith
When Tracy K. Smith was writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry, Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), she was thinking about her late father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Smith, who will speak and read Friday at the 36th Kentucky Women Writers Conference, has a long-standing fascination with the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is reflected particularly in the poem My God, It's Full of Stars, in which she considers the scenes in which the astronaut played by Keir Dullea floats above space canyons and seas, and then wraps up the poem with the first disappointing images from the Hubble, followed by the ones of such clarity that they made people gasp: "We saw to the edge of all there is — /So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back."
The Stanley Kubrick-directed film, now a classic, "is a big presence in my head that I knew I wanted to find room for in this book," Smith says.
The themes of space and death arise repeatedly throughout the book: Why do the dead take on such a stature in our lives by their very absence? Where do their spirits go? Do they inhabit a canyon of the spirit, swooping above us and watching those left behind, even those who ruthlessly dispatched them?
And what does all of that mean to those left behind, cobbling together a day-to-day existence?
After her father died, Smith began "to think about space as a real place, the possible or impossible of the afterlife."
Smith says she hopes that "if my father can see me, he must be looking at me with something that is complete compassion."
The book "was something that started out as anxieties I have as an American at this point," she says, including atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The title, although it reflects on the themes of the afterlife and space, actually comes from a David Bowie song. The singer is also referenced in the poem Don't You Wonder, Sometimes? in which Smith writes that "He's got/The whole world under his foot,/And we are small alongside."
She said that while readers can interpret a text many ways, there is at the bottom an indisputable authorial intent behind it.
"Readers bring so much to a text ... but I also am a strong believer in the idea that there is stuff there waiting in the text," Smith says.
In one poem, They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected, victims of hate crimes in 2009 send prose notes to their killers that reflect both the futility of their end and the peace they have attained post-death as roving spirits: "I used to think my body was a container for love./There is so much more now without my body. A kind of ecstasy."
Smith says that the "notes" combined with the surrounding poetry became "an attempt to synthesize those two different threads" of the things people do to one another. Elsewhere in the book, she refers to the atrocities at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners "were strung like beef/From the ceilings of their cells."
Putting together a collection of poetry is a process in which the writer constructs an experience that allows the reader to move through the collection thematically in a way that is unlike building the exposition of, say, a novel.
But poetry isn't Smith's only genre. She just finished work on a 300-page memoir to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in May. She also teaches at Princeton University.
Smith says she finds herself writing with her three young children in mind as well as her readers.
"I like being made more conscious of the scale of my ambition," she says."I am trying to give them something in language and through the lens of my imagination that may be of value to them ... things that may be worth thinking about in 30 years if I'm no longer here."