Out of this World…

Author:  Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars Cover (184x274)I don’t know how anyone decides who deserves a poetry award.  Since they’re giving out awards for every kind of writing under the sun, maybe the members of the Pulitzer Prize Board don’t know any more about poetry than I do, which isn’t much.  But when a poet’s work is awarded one of the prestigious prizes, I figure it’s a least worth a look.  That’s why I picked up Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which received the award in 2011. The fact that the collection takes its name from one of David Bowie’s best songs further piqued my interest. 

Gusev Crater on Mars.

Gusev Crater on Mars.


Smith, a creative writing professor at Princeton University since 2005, is no stranger to awards, having published two acclaimed collections prior to this one.  In these 32 poems, she frequently draws on picturesque images from outer space and science fiction – and a scatter of Bowie references – to explore the harsh human reality of war, mortality and mental illness. 

Bowie in Chile in 1990.

Bowie in Chile in 1990.

Highlights include a passionate tribute to her late father and an examination of a string of unrelated murders inspired by hatred in 2009.

While the topics are weighty and sobering, the poems themselves are often surprisingly graceful, serene and haunting.  Smith consistently writes with soft spoken simplicity and clarity, but her anger and passion are still readily apparent, floating just below the surface.

Confidently recommending poetry is difficult, given the subjective nature of the endeavor, but I can honestly report that I found Life on Mars to be an intriguing adventure by an intense and talented writer.  It’s a frequently captivating and thought-provoking collection that I can recommend for any poetry reader, even if it doesn’t have an enthusiastic back-cover blurb from Ziggy Stardust.

photos by Spirit rover (Mars) and Jorge Barrios (Bowie)

— D. Driftless

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