Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

I’ve been putting together a syllabus for an undergraduate poetry workshop, and I decided I wanted to teach a section on speculative poetry. It’s something I’ve been interested in recently, and want to learn a lot more about. (Suggestions?) Anyway, I was excited to see that the Pulitzer Prize was given to a young, black woman poet writing speculative poetry earlier this year, and so I got Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I haven’t read any of her earlier work, so I didn’t really have a sense of what to expect.

There were a few poems that really struck me in this collection, but only a few. I think I’m not as excited by the tone of the poetry as I could be, perhaps because I find the kind of revelatory, confessional mode a little worn out and unengaging. But some of the speculative poems at the beginning, and especially “Museum of Obsolescence” and “Sci Fi” were startling and extraordinary. But a lot of the poems in the collection seem very…standard. I don’t know if that’s the right way to describe them. It’s the kind of stuff you see in The New Yorker – things that aren’t deeply imaginative, exciting or innovative. Mostly first-person, experiential…applying the normative poetic modes of the last 30 years to a contemporary personal and political world.

I will be including those two poems on my syllabus, though. I mean:

So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,

Instead, its own quick span, returning
to uselessness with the mute acquiescence

Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:

I think, though, that the poetic tone and vocabulary that this book operates in is one that is just utterly exhausted by overuse. Which is interesting because one of the things I think is best about speculative fiction and poetry is the opening up of imaginatively charged and innovative worlds/subjects/ideas and the creation of a linguistic map and vocabulary that is unexpected.

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