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Immanuel Decano

Professor Kalaidjian

English 325

11 December 2016

What a Life On Mars

As humans our minds have evolved and expanded to the point wherein we question

nearly everything (well, some of us). This drive of curiosity brings us to utilize the best in what

were given. As a collective we talk, argue, think, feel, believe, improvise, question, create,

innovate, and destroy. This is a result of our curiosity and human urge to understand, criticize,

question the world around us, and try to make the world we are born in somehow work for us.

Now, as this collective -- this society of thinking beings we reach further than we have before.

This time we aim for the stars. Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars, uses her poetry to

question the existence of a God. Smith uses common themes such as science fiction, religious

undertones, astronomy, hints towards a dystopian future, as well as a questioning of reality. A lot

of Smiths influence stems from her father who passed due to a terminal illness. Her father

worked as an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope and this is where her interests in

cosmology and astrophysics originates. The religious themes in Life on Mars can range from an

obvious use of God to simple hints towards acknowledging a higher power.

Throughout a number of poems in Life on Mars Smith uses religion to express mediums

she may have used in her search for understanding death (following the death of Smiths father).

In Nature, a journal, Tracy K. Smith was interviewed by Jascha Hoffman. When speaking about

her father, Smith stated, My father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Life on Mars became

a way to move towards my father, to try to understand some part of the mystery of death. There
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is mention within Life on Mars of different individuals with their arms raised: He did it like

Moses. arms raised high, face an apocryphal white. (Smith 9) and His face lit-up whenever

anyone asked, and his arms would rise (12). In literary works the symbol of raised arms can be

used to express surrender and worship towards a higher power (specifically in Judeo-Christian

religions). Smith uses this to refer to her search for what death may bring. Revolving around

death seems to be an everlasting question about whether or not an afterlife exists. Therefore, it

makes sense that the poet would use these symbols. Additionally, Smith writes of the uncertainty

she must have had in terms of a belief in a higher power. In her poem Savior Machine, she

writes, Earlier that morning. Back before/ You existed to me, you were a theory. (22). Her

search for the meaning behind the mystery of death has perhaps led her to wonder whether a

higher power existed.

Another common theme within Life on Mars revolves around astrophysics and

cosmology. This is due to her father having worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. In the

interview with the Nature journal Smith states, I also have a private attachment to the Hubble

because it was part of my fathers daily life for a number of years. I think of it as an extension of

him when I write in My God, Its Full of Stars. In Life on Mars Smith has a poem by the same

title and she writes, Tina says dark matter is just a theory. Something/ We know is there, but

cant completely prove. (38). This may refer back to Smiths thought of a higher power. Since

she may feel as if theres evidence although a higher power is not seen. Smith uses scientific

theories such as the existence of dark matter for her argument. A further explanation into the

existence of dark matter is that in the universe we have solar systems and galaxies. Regardless,

these systems would not hold their elliptical orbit if it was not for something pulling them

together due to the weak gravitational pull between visible matter. Therefore, solar systems and
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galaxies would simply not exist. Since there are solar systems and galaxies we know there is

something holding them together. That something is referred to as dark matter. Although we may

not be able to physically see dark matter we can see its effects on light. At times, the light from

stars becomes bent and displaces. This is due to the gravitational pull of dark matter

manipulating the trajectory of the light. Smith also uses dystopian type of themes to portray

expose flaws within society.

Dystopian novels, movies, etc. are used to expose flaws in society. Except, rather than

being blunt and direct with the accusations of a flawed world the directors and writers use their

medium as a method of creating metaphorical events and settings wherein there is a type of

organized, uniform, peaceful future but in fact the future is full of corruption or the people have

lost their freedom. Smith enjoys going back to science fiction movies from the past because of

the scientific themes used. Smith stated in a Youtube (Titled Tracy K. Smith Reads From Life

on Mars) video posted by PBS News Hour, My interest in science fiction was really based in

what now seems like a very catchy futuristic aesthetic. An image of the future from about 40

years ago. So i went back to films like Stanley Kubricks 2001 which was beautiful and majestic.

I found that it was one of the really helpful tools to think about when i was trying to learn about

black holes and space travel. An example of Smiths use of dystopian themes would be her

references back to dystopian works: In those last scenes of Kubricks 2001/ When Dave is

whisked into the center of space, (11) and the type of symbolism used holds some dystopian

undertones when Smith writes, To view our enemies as children. My father spend whole

seasons/ Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find. (12). The oracle-eye can

be a symbol for something that is omniscient or a being that continues searching or perhaps

keeping track of peoples actions.


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Smith also tends to question reality and what exists. This is used to challenge the status

quo. When Smith writes of the skepticism towards a higher power or a belief it works as a

metaphor. Climate change is still denied by many individuals and it is important for the future of

our planet to combat our ever increasing change in climate. When asked by Hoffman (from

Nature) about what poems Smith plans to write about next, Smith responded, I have been

thinking about climate change and the factions of people who doubt that it exists. Additionally,

although Smith did not refer to her current poems in the book Life on Mars as being used

metaphorically to challenge the status quo we can see that her drive to be supportive of the

scientific community extends not only to the cosmos, rather, her passion lies within the sciences

of Earth.

As we question the world around us and let ourselves open up to new possibilities we see

a limitless universe wherein so many different beliefs can be accepted. Smith uses her themes in

Life on Mars to project the different schools of thought one may encounter when in search for

particular answers about the universe (in Smiths case she focused mostly on the mystery of

death). Smith was able to show that observable things in the universe may not be visible but are

supported by evidence and in some way she correlated that with the belief in a higher power.

Additionally, Smith questioned and challenged the status quo and understood that, although the

scientific community nearly unanimously supports something like climate change, not everyone

will accept scientific claims backed by evidence.

Work Cited

Hoffman, Jascha. "Q&A Tracy K. Smith: The Space Poet." Nature, Volume 479, 2011, 477.

Tracy K. Smith Reads From Life on Mars. YouTube, uploaded by PBS NewsHour, 16 May

2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLIH6ewfplA.
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Smith, Tracy K. Life on Mars. Graywolf Press, 2011.