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Reading Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars Poems Through Julia Kristeva and Susanna Egan.

Tracy K. Smith, a recent poet laureate of the United States, presents with her poetry a contemporary literary voice. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 collection, Life on Mars consists of poems arranged in four sections. The poems in the book revolve around a wide array of topics and references ranging from astro-physics to popular culture, mainly considering humans' relationship to life, culture, each other and in a wider spectrum to universe. Smith, throughout these sections, contemplates on issues such as death and afterlife, God, cosmos, past and present, or the future of human life in order to bring out the possible meanings of being and existence both as social identity and as cosmic species.

Smith's occupation with death in Life on Mars poems can also be related with her father Floyd William Smith's death. Her meditative inquiry and curiosity on outer space is a legacy from his father who was one of the engineers developing the Hubble Telescope. Thus, her interest to issues of space such as "dark matter" is probably an inherited curiosity, one of the daily subject-matters often being spoken about at home. Her poems express an elegy for her father. His influence seems to be not only upon her personal life but also her "poesie", so that the father becomes a "transcendental ego" for Smith's poetic language. Her initial crisis resulting from this loss comes out in her poetic imagination as authenticating investigations of life. This post trauma awareness is to be analyzed as a consolidating and emancipating experience.

Often, Smith attempts to fuse science into her poetic imagination in order to widen her perspective to a cosmic consciousness so that one can find in these poems the means to cope with the existentialist human drama in the face of death as loss and nothingness. Therefore, Life on Mars poems get at the subjectivity of experience while providing the reader with a sense of connectedness both to their own inner lives and to a wider meaning of life and existence.

With an attempt to assume a contemporary perspective for this analysis, Tracy K. Smith's poetic discourse will be read in the light of some basic notions/elements from Julia Kristeva's Desire in Language and Susanna Egan's Mirror Talk. Driving from language, psychoanalytic and cultural theories of identification and narration, Kristeva in the Desire in Language and Egan in the Mirror Talk attempt to define literary text's signification in terms of being an ongoing experience as double-coded and dialogic. In both works, such double-coded form of language relates to a productivity in meaning, engendered in between activities of writing and reading as well as in between positions of narrator and reader, via conflict and compromise as to maintain a sense of durability both literally and figuratively. In this sense, Smith's poetic discourse appears in the field of artistic expression as depending on subjective reflections producing meaning out of life. The speaker's tone, curious and confessional, experiences with variations of discourses as a means of interacting with people and life. This makes her poems dialogic in tone. Assuming this polyphonic discourse, Smith's speaker gains self-confidence and power to deal with life. In this way, Life on Mars poems can also be explored as "life writings", a term suggested by Susanne Egan to embrace all "genres of life and death" in literature (Egan 12-28).

In Mirror Talk's first essay "Facing Off", Egan begins her exploration on the nature of contemporary writing by using autobiography as her primary form of material. Appealing to a variety of contemporary considerations that challenge the univocal and authoritative position of the biographer as narrator in traditional autobiography, Egan demonstrates that the autobiographic text becomes a field of signification in which "two or more voices encounter one another, or interact" (3). As she notes,
[a]utobiographers who, within one text, are both subject and object of
speech and regard, becoming in turn self and other for each other, play
out the politics of lived experience as a realistic trope for
exploring, defining, and expressing just who they are. (8)


In line with this view, in Smith's "Life On Mars" poem--which her book is named after--the speaker applies to a "Tina" character from her own life as an alternative voice while beginning her exploration on what "dark matter" is. The poem opens with the following lines:
Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn't exactly love, and I think
That sounds right - (Life On Mars 37)


Departing from Tina's suggestion of "dark matter" as being "like the space between people", the speaker inquires the meaning of attachment and kinship (37). "Dark matter" is likened to an unsurmountable drive or energy between people. Feelings of sorrow and pain, for instance, as the outcome of death, birth, love and hate, are considered within the content of a "dark matter" which cannot be easily definable, yet is cosmically indispensable.
Tina says we do it to one another, every day,
Knowing and not knowing. When it is love,
What happens feels like dumb luck. When it's not,
We're riddled with bullets, shut through like ducks. (Life on Mars 41)


Here, Tina character functions as a voice of wisdom and a voice of affirmation to the speakers' consideration of "dark matter". To render the subjectivity of the experience meaningful for a supposed reader, the "writing self" will attempt to treat the experience from the outside as much as from the inside. To Egan, "this very claim on an audience splits the internal and external manifestations of the writing self' (2). However, Egan also sees this initial split of the writing self in-between writer and "other" (or reader) as the authenticating aspect formulating the productivity of a text. She infers that
[i]f subjectivity and alterity can take turns within one text, with
neither one disappearing as a subject, then dialogues between cultural
and political margins and centers also become possible within the
text. (13)


Similar to Egan's autobiographer both as subject and object of speech, in Desire in Language's second essay "Bounded Text", Kristeva considers the author's indispensable split between a conducting authority and an actor, using novel and novelistic utterance as her primary form of material. According to Kristeva,
[t]he author-actor's utterance unfolds, divides and faces in two
directions: first towards a referential utterance, narration--the
speech assumed by he who inscribes himself as actor-author; and second,
toward textual premises, citation--speech attributed to an other and
whose authority he who inscribes himself as actor-author acknowledges.
These two orientations intertwine in such a way as to merge. (45)
(emphasis original)


Here actor-author seems to be subject to the judgment of an agent, an alter ego which is similar to the Husserlian "transcendental ego" as also employed by Kristeva (128-32). In Husserl's conceptualization, transcendental ego seems to refer to a realm of commonsense and consciousness which serves the author-self as a hypothetical and symbolic reference datum. According to Kristeva's reading of Husserl, signifying act is the predicative operation of consciousness by means of which consciousness simultaneously constitutes (posits) Being and the transcendental ego. Any linguistic act, in so far as it sets up a signified that can be communicated in a sentence, is sustained by the transcendental ego. Therefore, subject's signifying act is basically determined by the transcendental ego. The meaning and signification produced by transcendental ego's thetic predicative operation, however, do not exhaust the poetic function. Signified object and transcendental ego are only one of poetic language's limits. Accordingly, there can be some givens within language that may escape from the unity of transcendental ego (Kristeva 130-31).

Transcendental ego, acting as a thetic consciousness, maintains the objectivity of the narrating subject while the actor-self is the executer and expresser agent of the same ego. As an analogue, this is like mimicking the God-Abraham dialogue in the biblical discourse; narrator has to double act, in other words, perform both as the God who commands and as Abraham who obeys.

The subjectivity of experience as a contemporary artistic expression liberates the narrative voice from the constraint of a godly consciousness, while the need to communicate with "an other" persists and it opens up new orientations of utterance. In contemporary writing theory, the call for the emancipation of the narrator from the authorial role is of course a challenge to the univocal claims of a transcendental ego. Yet, as Kristeva also mentions, such a division between the self and significant "other" is an inevitable and vital characteristic of the narrative act.

In this sense, as will be shown, in Tracy Smith's poetic language, "father" seems to become a major orientation of utterance, a symbolically transcendental ego, the speaker desires both to become and overcome. In the poem "My God, It's Full of Stars", for example, the persona remembers the times when her father used to work on the construction of the Hubble Telescope. The telescope becomes an instrument which is simultaneously identified with the father. Located on an above atmospheric position, the Hubble orbits the Earth. Facing towards space, with its multi-directed gaze, the telescope beams thousands of views of the universe back to Earth. Symbolically it becomes a phallic instrument, a paternal object of signification extending our human sight to distant space and shedding a light on our curiosity. Within the poetic context, father's desire to discover space intersects the speaker's desire to expand her poetic imagination.
My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending Night
of space. (12)


Kristeva, driving from a variety of examples, primarily Mayakovski's work, and also drawing on Jacobson's bringing out, suggests that two tendencies seem to dominate poetic language. One is the "rhythm" which she sees as the basis of any poetic work; a rapture, a resound which is trimmed and shaped within the poetic formulation (28). The other is the "ego" which she sees situated within the structural rules of (space of) language (29). In Lacanian sense, Kristeva posits rhythm as a symptom of "the original desire" (desire to the maternal body) and symbolically uses the "sun" as the agency of language (father's law); as the "paternal law abrading rhythm, destroying it to a large degree, but also bringing it to light, out of its earthly revolutions, to enunciate itself" (29). Thus her analogy "the struggle between poet and sun" is to be understood "as a summary leading from the poet's condition to poetic formulation" (28-9). In this sense, the poetic "I" is the "ego" yearning to become as powerful as the symbolic father either by enunciating and mastering rhythm. "Thus, there is no choice but to struggle eternally against the sun; the "I" is successively the sun and its opponent, language and its rhythm, never one without the other, and poetic formulation will continue as long as the struggle does" (29).

In this sense, Smith's speaker often wonders on the meaning of God, existence, life and death which could symbolically be seen as the poet's eternal struggle with the sun. In "The Weather in Space" which is the opening poem of her book, she asks:
Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we're certain to lose, so alive-Faces
radiant with panic. (3)


Here, the speaker attempts to delineate the vast and unconquerable idea of God through her rhythmic rapture and often through juxtaposing opponent possibilities like holding and losing love, or presence and absence. Accordingly, in the poem "Cathedral Kitsch", the speaker raises questions about God, and her struggle to answer these questions results in creating tones as authentic utterances which contribute to her poetic formulation within the order of language.
Does God love gold?
Does He shine back
At himself from walls
Like these, leafed
In the earth's softest wealth? (15)


In this poem, God shines back "in the chords that rise from the tall brass pipes", as much as in "the chorus of crushed cans someone drags over cobbles in the secular street" (15). Juxtaposing the "tall brass pipes" and "crushed cans" matches in the rhythm of language in so far as the speaker ponders upon God. Poetic formulation continues as a result of her struggle with the idea of God.

In the poem "Speed of Belief, this time, "father" creates an alternate "I" within the poetic discourse which functions as the Kristevaian paternal "sun". The poet both desires to become Sun and at the same time to set free from it. Towards the end of the poem, speaker finally emancipates herself from the father (symbolized by Sun) whom she has been regarding as an idol since her childhood and has been longing for after his death:
When I was young, my father was lord
Of a small kingdom: a wife, a garden,
Kids for whom his word was Word.
It took years for my view to harden,
To shrink him to human size
And realize the door leading was open. (31)


Correlatively, in "Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?" the poet identifies herself with David Bowie this time. In this identification, she is both Bowie and against Bowie. Here, just like herself, Bowie is "Not God, exactly" but rather an opponent of god (19). The rhythmic rapture in this poem evolves around David Bowie's fantastic Ziggy Stardust character who belongs to this earth as well as outer space. She declares that "Bowie will never die" and "he'll never grow old" (19). Smith's personal love and likeness for Bowie and the way she embarks him as a character in her poem can be read as the affirmation of the ego and her empowerment in the face of God, death and/or cosmic vastness. Here, with her renewed awareness, again the way to freedom is open for her:
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
                                     Go ahead. (21)


Kristeva coins the term "speaking subject" for the narrating voice of the writer. Her "speaking subject" is split in-between what she conceptualizes as a "semiotic chora" and a "symbolic device". Lacan's theory of "imaginary" stage (pre-language) and "symbolic" order (entering language) constitutes the discourse of Kristeva's "speaking subject", engendered in-between an archaic desire to the maternal body and the construction of an ego claiming its identity. She borrows the Platonic term "chora" (described in Timaeus as an invisible and formless being: a receptacle receiving all things or where forms materialize). Extending the Platonic meaning of the term, Kristeva's "semiotic chora" refers to the pre-lingual, primary processes of the being, before developing a sense of self apart from the mother, whereas the "symbolic device" refers to the establishment of grammatical and social constraints, symbolic/paternal law. Speaking subject's discourse inevitably belongs to the "semiotic" and "symbolic" orders of signification. Kristeva focuses her interest on the discourse of this speaking subject and conceptualizes her theory of "language as articulation of a heterogeneous process, with the speaking subject leaving its imprint on the dialectic between the articulation and its process" (24).

Thus, Kristeva attempts to consider language as a linguistic order having an "umbilical cord" to the original and archaic desire which cannot be verbalized within the order of the paternal law. Accordingly, the being's renunciation of the desire to merge with the maternal body finds its expression as the repressed desire in language. Desire for the mother, as first theorized by Freud, is actually a desire for the original formlessness, in other words, it can also be interpreted as the being's desire to death. In Lacan, this desire forbidden in language exists outside of language as a potentially antagonistic force to the commonsense constructed through language.

However, Kristeva employs "poetic language" to exemplify that it is the best form of discourse in which the speaking subject, through rhythm, rhythmic rapture, intonations, repetitions etc., or through more subjective ways of utterance or diction, challenges the regular order of language. The expression through poetic discourse thus seems like a space of less restriction, a ground where the speaking subject can actively act in and out of language.

In this manner, within Smith's poetic discourse, while God, father and other identified people like Tina or David Bowie seem to represent a thetic consciousness, "cosmic space"--often related with feminine attributions--seems to signify a maternal chora. In the poem "My God It's Full of Stars", for example, Smith's persona investigates the possibilities of presence in a wider cosmic space-maybe in alternative dimensions--as against that of absence caused by passing away from our temporary reside in Earth. This cosmic space, offered as a new possibility for an existence, is defined with feminine attributions, just like a great maternal body:
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,
Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best ("My God It's Full of
Stars" 8)


In the poem "The Soul", the speaking subject's yearn for the pre-language stage where the being is one with the maternal body, finds expression in the following words:
[...] A garment
That attests to breasts, the privacy
Between thighs. The body is what we lean toward,
Tensing as it darts, dancing away. But it's the voice that enters us.
Even
Saying nothing. Even saying nothing
Over and over absently to itself. (The Soul 23)


Here the eroticization of the "body" is rather in an archaic sense as to revoke an ancient "mother-cult" both as nourishing and daemonic. Similarly, in the section 8 of "Life on Mars", Smith pictures the Earth as an old and weary maternal body, the source and final destination of our organic substance:
Patient, biding its time. The earth
Floating in darkness, suspended in spin.
The earth gunning it around the sun.
The earth we ride in disbelief.
The earth we plunder like thieves.
The earth caked to mud in the belly
Of a village with no food. Burying us.
The earth coming off on our shoes. ("Life On Mars" 41)


This image of "earth caked to mud in the belly" also reminds Camilla Paglia's "chthonic" earth cult, an archaic meaning of earth as "prima matter" (Paglia 5-6). According to Paglia, "what the West represses in its view of nature is the chthonian, which means 'of the earth'--but earth's bowels, not its surface" (5). (1)

With the poem "Sci-Fi", the speaker's imagination extends our vision again, to a distant future where humanity is far away from the home galaxy system; earth, sun and the moon. Rather than settling humanity and human condition to a new planet in her far-future imagination, the speaker considers a new form of existence for human kind which seems to defy limits, dependencies and the deterioration of the body:
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines only pointing forward.
[...]
And yes; we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we'll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe. (Sci-Fi 7)


The signification of the poetic discourse here is again double-coded. As much as a future condition for human species, these lines can also be read as the suggestion of a possible form of afterlife. In the speaker's language, "markings of the original desire" to a formlessness is obvious with the words like "weightless" or "unhinged". Likewise, the phrase "haze of space" evokes a chora image, as much as an all-embracing maternal harbor. In Freudian sense, the instinctual desire to the mother's body as a death bed (semiotic chora) is the primitive drive here. This desire gives a rhythmic rapture to language (symbolic device) as well as it acts as the speaker's defiance to the fear of impending death as an inevitable human condition.

In Mirror Talk's first chapter "Facing Off: Genres of Life and Death" Egan, in her discussion of "the politics of crisis and the body" as the formulating elements of the contemporary narrative act, states that crisis is "an unstable condition seeking change" or in some cases "a permanent state, a balancing act reenacted in the text" (5).

In "The Speed of Belief, the speaker's initial sorrow resulting from her father's death is expressed as a major crisis. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker feels disinclined to be in the reality and necessities of the funeral room.
I didn't want to wait on my knees,
In a room made quiet by waiting."
[...]
I didn't want the orchids or the trays,
Of food meant to fortify that silence. ("The Speed of Belief" 27)


The poem's title, "Speed of Belief" echoes as to remind the term "speed of light" in the jargon of astro-physics. Like the word "light", "belief" in poetic language connotes a positive and healing force against regression or dark emptiness of loss. As the poem unfolds-like the passage of time-speaker reexamines the meaning of life through the specter of death and asks "But where does all he [father] knew-and all he must now know-walk?" (29).

This question finds answer moment by moment as she realizes that her father's wisdom penetrates throughout her poetic imagination. Thus, the speaker's initial crisis caused by the loss of her father turns into a wisdom of sustaining the self without the father. She is emancipated by transforming her loss and sorrow to creativity:
I walked through, and my eyes
Swallowed everything, no matter
How it cut. To bleed was my prize:
I was free, nobody's daughter,
Perfecting an easy weightless laughter. ("Speed of Belief"31)


Egan, further in her discussion, also seems to identify the hovering consciousness of death as a basic and permanent drive for the imaginative act of the autobiographer. She states that "the crisis that generate autobiography may begin with the body; suffering, illness, and death go to work on the body and determine its narratives" (7). Referring to Breyten Breytenbach's "docu-dream" Mouroir which was composed during a period of incarceration, she conceptualizes the act of narration in terms of writing about death as much as about life, as an act of struggle in and out of death.
If Breytenbach's title, Mouroir, conflates the concepts of
self-reflection and death, or self discovery in confrontation with
death, it also describes life writing as a death sentence. This
ultimate, or foundational, relationship of life with death has always
been important to autobiography, but the writing of unresolved crisis
implicates death or some subordinate form of unwelcome resolution in
every full stop. (Egan 12)


In Smith's poetry, too, the notion of death is often treated as an inevitable aspect of self-reflection. The poem "No-Fly Zone" opens with a reflection of the self, being haunted by the consciousness of death, while hearing the buzz of the city outside. Speaker uses third person singular to utter her other self who cannot name her fear. Here, each line becomes, as Egan calls, "life writing as a death sentence":
She fears something but can't say what.
She goes in reverse, mopping up her own tracks.
When she sleeps, it's always the same foggy night.
The dead have stopped knocking. No answer.
Their big cars hover along her block, engines
Idling, woofers pumping that relentless brass
Into the bones of her house. ("No-Fly Zone" 44)


However, as the poem continues, this struggle with fear of death opens up moments of resolution. In part four, the speaker knows that she has to walk out of her fear which causes her depressive inertness. Her call to the self is also a call for a symbolic resurrection:
Biscuits-n-gravy. It's a sin to live behind curtains.
Pick up your bed and walk. Memory's stubborn-I
mean misery. You sit in silence waiting to be chosen.
Behaving. Pick up your bed and walk. You want it all
Over again. Past perfect. ("No-Fly Zone" 45)


Consequently, in Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith uses her artistic imagination both as a connection to her dead father and as a resistance to the crisis caused by his death. Her speaker's dialogic tone constructs her text as an active field of her subjectivity and of a commutual experience with others. Her subjectivity, as artistically structured in language, politically manages to maintain a polyphonic "I" balancing the tension between life and death as two opposing and complementary forces acting upon her text. Through self interrogation and through dialogue with her significant others, Smith's speaking subject challenges the fear of death as a response to the trauma caused by her father's death. Recognition becomes the empowering and authenticating aspect of her identity not just to deal with the trauma caused by her father's death but to deal with crisis as a permanent state in life. Smith's deceased father, as her spiritual mentor, becomes a transcendental "I" through whose predicative judgment, the text often communicates with the readers, who are, as contemporary theories of Egan and Kristeva suggest, active participants of "writing" as an ongoing process engendered in-between two processes of signification. This duality between Smith's speaking subject and the reader as other, unfolds as moments of resolution as the two subjects share moments of recognition.

Works Cited

Egan, Susanna. "Facing Off: Genres of Life and Death". Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1941.

Smith, Tracy K. Life on Mars Poems. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.

Paglia, Camille. "Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art". Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London: Yale UP, 1991.

(1) Paglia explains that the term chthonic is used for pre-olympian Greek religion and she adopts it "as a substitute for Dionysian, which has become contaminated with vulgar pleasantries". Thus, Paglia embarks "Dionysian" or "chthonian" as metaphors to "the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from consciousness to retain our Apollonian integrity as persons" (6).
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Author:Altug, Zeynep Asya
Publication:Interactions
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 10, 2018
Words:4409
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