"Space is the place".
It is quite daunting to review Tracy Smith's Life on Mars (2011), which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. I find the task daunting not only because I find this volume of verse stunning but also because I believe it welcomes a new phase of reinterpreting the African American literary tradition. Smith began Life on Mars to use "space" and "universe" as metaphors for American life. The passing of Smith's father, who helped build the Hubble telescope, in the process of writing the manuscript swung these metaphors in a new direction, weaving the personal even more intricately with the political, finding the unprecedented in the quotidian, and eyeing wonder even in the mundane. Smith deliberately weaves in elegiac poems for her father, inspired by his work on the Hubble Telescope and his general love for things "sci-fi." For Max Cavitch, elegies aid in the cultural work of mourning: "Elegy is a genre that enables fantasies about worlds we cannot yet reach, even as it facilitates investments in a world that will outlast us" (.American Elegy, 3). I appreciate this definition because it helps me sort out the feeling that Life on Mars deepens elegy's place in the field of Afro-Futurism.
Afro-futurists are literary, visual, and sonic artists and intellectuals who do not simply assert that black people will exist in the future (although this assertion, in itself, counters the discourse of extinction that has trailed black folk since Emancipation until now). Afro-futurists treat blackness as a way of envisioning futures. Significantly, this is not simply "a black thing" that excludes or condescends against other racial groups. This is crucial, since Smith (like Saul Williams, another artist often associated with Afro-futurism) takes the title of her volume from David Bowie's song of the same name. Actually Afro-futurism almost necessarily entails cross-cultural appropriation or collaboration that takes blackness seriously as a creative and critical entry point and alternative way of being.
The most definitive published collection on Afro-futurism appears in 2002 in Social Text. That special issue, titled "Future Texts," critiques the argument that a desirable future is always a more technologically advanced one, that blackness is antithetical to technological advancement, and, as a result, a more technologically advanced future will necessarily be less black. In "Future Texts," Tracie Morris offers three elegiac poems that fly at warp speed in the face of those who associate technological advancement with less blackness. Such a future would be a catastrophic "Dystopic Unity" (93). In this catastrophe, the future does violence to those in it and those who came before: "Under the rubble," Morris writes, "under the graves/ the ancient dead shake such angry fists" ("Vertical," 95). Morris most forcefully demonstrates this catastrophe in "Mother Earth," where "the whole boiling, burning sea/ has begun to smolder" and "goats consume tiny tastes of uranium" (96). Here the world is resetting itself after humanity's technological pursuits have run their unfulfilling course. The poem concludes, "eagles come down from/ stratospheric heights, carrying/ their nests from clouds," as if one must come back to earth to avoid techno-catastrophe. While this special issue of Social Text covers a range of topics, this set of poems offers the most radical statement against exclusionary narratives of technological progress; the racism, sexism, elitism, and imperialism those narratives harbor; and the self-destructive use of technology these forms of oppression demand.
Life on Mars has a different starting point that takes for granted African diasporic participation in technology. The question most forcefully animating this poetry, as I read and hear it, is what new forms of ethical connectedness must be thought and expressed, based on the phenomena we witness in the universe. Space is the place, to borrow Sun Ra's famous phrase, where even loss opens up to new futures. "Space" and the "universe" function as metaphors for American life and as an infinity that puts American life in new perspective. It is at once a metaphor and something staging the very possibility for metaphor. The volume's power and beauty comes from its ability to manage this double role for space being the place. I find it so compelling that I wonder how one can look back over the African American tradition with this in mind.
It may appear far-fetched to link the entire African-American literary tradition to a phrase from Sun Ra, the jazz musician and philosopher who spoke of living life beyond planet earth. But one can look past more recent work like Outkast's Athens (1996), Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet (1990), Parliament Funkadelic's work in the 1980s or 1970s, or Sun Ra's mid-century jazz, and find a version of this theme even in Souls of Black Folk (1903). "Through all the sorrow songs there breathes a hope," Du Bois says, "a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond" (Souls 544).
Max Cavitch has already written about mourning in these same lines, this chapter and in Souls of Black Folk as a whole. But Cavitch does not consider the relation of this passage to the stanza of song preceding it: "Oh, the stars in the elements are falling/ And the moon drips away into blood,/ and the ransomed of the Lord are returning unto Cod,/ Blessed be the name of the Lord." Here, the dystopic lyrics in the song almost anticipate Tracie Morris's poems published almost exactly a century later. But the most gripping references to space being the place in Souls are found in "Of the Passing of the Firstborn," an elegy to the death of W. E. B. and his wife Nina Du Bois's first child, Burghardt. Once again, W. E. B. Du Bois references a "fair world beyond" the earth's skies, when Nina, "in simple clearness of vision sees beyond the stars" and says of their son, "He will be happy There; he ever loved beautiful things" (Souls, 509). The contrast between Nina's mournful confidence and W. E. B.'s bewilderment--"And I [W. E. B.], far more ignorant and blind by the web of mine own weaving [than Nina], sit alone winding words and muttering, 'If still he be, and he be There, and there be a There, let him be happy, O Fate!"'--hinges upon who can imagine space as a place of peace, harmony, and justice and who cannot (Souls, 509).
Perhaps one can go back further, to the first black published writer in what will be the United States, who uses elegy to assert that space is the place, namely, Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley's skill at elegy has been discussed most convincingly, I think, as representative of the enslaved New World African's work of mourning, using the genre to deal with loss on several levels, for a population that has lost so many familial and communal connections. She seeks to instantiate a sense of totality in which personal and communal becoming can occur. In "On Imagination" Wheatley describes her titular subject:
Soaring through air to find the bright abode Th' empyreal palace of the thund'ring God We on they pinions can surpass the wind, And leave the rolling universe behind From star to star the mental optics rove, Measure the skies, and range the realms above There in one view we grasp the mighty whole, Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul. (36)
For Immanuel Kant, the imagination is lawless. Its wings must be clipped to allow Reason's proper function. For Wheatley, on the contrary, the whole can only be grasped if imagination "sour[s]" and "leave[s] the universe behind" to see "new worlds." The imagination is an integral component of the technology--"the mental optics," a phrase that goes beyond visual perception to consider how desire informs and influences perception--that the New World African possesses to see the universe as a whole. Wheatley's view differs greatly from F. T. Marinetti's in his "Futurist Manifesto," which envisions himself and his futurist compatriots as soldiers guarding against "enemy stars" in an enemy camp in the sky ("Futurist," 49). Wheatley critiques Marinetti's view 125 years before its appearance. Wheatley sees loved ones in the stars where Marinetti sees new wars and conquests. Wheatley reasserts the enslaved person's ability to mourn and be mourned and, consequently, reasserts the enslaved person's humanity in a dehumanizing system. She also invites us to join her in the infinity, in order to imagine new spaces and to see old spaces in new ways.
Over two centuries after Wheatley, Tracy Smith, inspired by her father's work on the Hubble and what new sight that technology gave us, also speaks of a new perception, a new mental optics, and wonder:
The first few pictures [from the Hubble] came back blurred, and I felt ashamed For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time, The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is-- So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back ("Life," 12, emphasis added)
Admittedly, there are differences in poetic detail and literary context. The lines from Wheatley are tighter, more ornamented iambic pentameter, striving for a near-classical symmetry. Perhaps one senses some anxiety in Wheatley's demonstration of compositional know-how. Then again, such anxiety may be unavoidable with poems that open a literary tradition spanning centuries. The deliberate looseness of Smith's lines conveys a more personal, intimate feeling of reminiscence. Of course, the differences between antebellum New England and post-9/11 America, let alone the technologies of space travel and optics, are almost too obvious to mention. Nevertheless, both poets turn to the first-person plural to write about surpassing the limits of our conceptual, emotive, and material worlds for the sake of justice through reference to the stars. These are two unique and singular expressions of an impulse that understands new futures as new elsewheres.
Smith goes farther, however, by envisioning this relation as "dark matter":
Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn't exactly love ... I think
That sounds right--how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won't let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place ("Life," 37).
Dark matter designates what links us together but cannot be directly noted, grabbed, and certainly not controlled (contra Marinetti's imperial ambitions). It "comprehends us back," as one poem says, but this universal intelligence never becomes God or any specific designation, besides calling it "It & Co.," a poem that comments on this unnameable, innumerable larger whole. The poems in Life on Mars can be read as questions, explorations, and hypotheses on dark matter, charting the experience of "hold[ing] all that we love" and of "chasing/After all that we're certain to lose, so alive--/faces radiant with panic" (3).
In his cult classic film, Space Is the Place (1972), Sun Ra says time is so full of war, vexation, and destruction that our first task is to "consider time officially ended" and "work on the other side of time." Smith does not immediately consider time ended but in "Museum of Obsolescence" she looks ahead to a moment when a range of objects, tools, and emotional states have returned to "uselessness." By including "green money, and oil in drums" in her catalog of obsolescence, one sees how space offers an alternative to avaricious earthly timelines. One also sees the subtlety of Smith's political commentary, in which current symbols of the "end of history," which are always linked to geopolitical prowess, become mere remnants of bygone paradigms of utility and false universality. In poems like "Sci-Fi," other aspects of present-day humanity share the same fate. "Women will still be women," the poem reads, "but/the distinction will be empty. Sex,/ Having outlived every threat, will gratify/ only the mind, which is where it will exist" (7). The power of these poems stems not from providing the blueprint for rendering such paradigms useless, but from staging a scene where there uselessness feels obvious, even necessary. The alternatives to these outworn, totalizing paths show up in poems that imagine the "Universe as a House Party," or "The Universe: Motion Picture Soundtrack" or "Cathedral Kitsch" or even as the "ocean," the largely uncharted universe on earth that indicates our proximity to the unknown. The poems frequently engage textures. "History" has a "hard-spine and dog-eared/corners" ("Sci-Fi," 7). In "The Largeness We Can't See," Smith proposes we "replace" this harsh history that scrapes us with "nuance," "when our saw-toothed breaths/Lay us on a bed of leaves" (18).
Life on Mars grabs one most tightly when it centers on lives lost, lives taken, and lives that live on to comprehend us back. Against the tendency of Marinetti and his colleagues to see space as the next site of an enemy camp, Smith imagines space being the place where such perspectives prove miniscule. Smith dedicates "They May Love All that He Has Chosen and Hate All that He Has Rejected" to victims of murders that made national headlines. The most chilling, thrilling segment of this elegy is Part IV, "In Which the Dead Send Postcards to Their Assailants from America's Most Celebrated Landmarks." Readers of Phillis Wheatley's poetry will recall her elegies often include a passage where the mourned attempt to console the mourners against falling too deeply into despair. Smith goes further than this, by having the victims of violence write letters back to their assailants. Weaving epistolary with elegy in this manner grants new seriousness and feeling to the potential that the universe comprehends us back. The first letter comes from Brisenia, a young girl murdered alongside her father by "Shawna." Brisenia and her father take a boat to the "statue of a big tall lady." Once they reach the top, her father "says we're free now to do whatever we want." Placing two murder victims at the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American opportunity, not only heightens one's sense of loss for two lives cut short. It also makes us wonder if a freedom is livable for the rest of us in status quo America. Once again, this letter demonstrates the subtlety of Smith's political commentary, which forgoes heavy-handed rhetoric for letters from elsewhere.
In conclusion, the "dark matter" Smith explores in these poems is not based on a stark divide between something and nothingness. Dark matter composes most of the universe, scientists think. And Smith exploits this hypothesis to imagine our world as full of relations, actions, and thoughts reaching from our earthly ground to the starry firmament. In its grandest moments, Life on Mars reminds us that space is the place where self-reflection can happen. We must step outside of our commonplace (ways of seeing our) spaces. What if they are not forlorn but superabundant with what has passed, what is here, and what is becoming? The question is if our mental optics, as Smith and Wheatley assert in their respective presents and poetic forms, can adjust to see what inhabits what we mistake for empty space. In its most intimate moments, like "The Speed of Belief" poems, dedicated to Smith's father, Life on Mars imagines places where the dead can live on, elsewhere. That elsewhere can be us, if we orient ourselves to its sight and sound, to "the dark we've only ever imagined now audible" (24). In reading these poems one experiences a power that places prayer over proposition, asking us to remain open to those who might return to our world, as Smith says about her father:
... And if you are bound By habit or will to be one of us Again, I pray you are what waits To break back into the world Through me. ("Life," 33)
Cavitch, Max. American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Souls of Black Folk in Du Bois: Writings. Ed Nathan Etuggins. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Marinetti, F. T. "Futurist Manifesto." Futurism: An Anthology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, 49-53.
Morris, Tracie. "Poetry: Afrofuture--Dystopic Unity, Vertical, Mother Earth." Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 93-96.
Smith, Tracy. Life on Mars. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.
Wheatley, Phillis. Complete Writings. Ed Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin, 2001.
James Edward Ford III teaches in the English Department at Occidental College. He is currently working on two book manuscripts, Thinking through Crisis: Depression-Era Black Literature, Theory, and Politics and Hip-Hop's Late Style: Liner Notes to an Aesthetic Theory.
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|Title Annotation:||'Life on Mars' by Tracy K. Smith|
|Author:||Ford, James Edward, III|
|Publication:||The Black Scholar|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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