Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The poetry of cosmology and grief

by Salman Hameed

Last week's New York Times had a review of a collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith called Life on Mars. It looks fantastic! It seems to connect the our sense of wonder and awe of the universe to the sometimes real pain and sorrow of the world. It reminded me of the recent fantastic documentary, Nostalgia for the Light (see the review here). Here is the context of Life on Mars:
At the outset of her third poetry collection, Smith too turns her eyes to the stars in search of perspective and solace, but for her the stakes are considerably higher and the images closer to home. Smith’s father was a scientist who worked on the Hubble’s development, and in her elegies mourning his death, outer space serves both as a metaphor for the unknowable zone into which her father has vanished and as a way of expressing the hope that his existence hasn’t ceased, merely changed.
Here is a snippet of her poetry. This is part of her poem, My God, It's Full of Stars:
Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That the others have come and gone-a momentary blip-
When all along, space might be chock-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they-we-flicker in.

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
In those last scenes of Kubrick's "2001"
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint in water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night-tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on....

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter's vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn't blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

On the set, it's shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, and bright white.

He'd read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. 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. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures 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.

Read the full poem here. But this is from the first part of the book. Back to the review:
Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept — or at least endure — the universe’s mystery. I kept noticing, early on, that Smith was using the pronoun “it” in situations where “it” had no clear antecedent. At first I thought this was a tic at best and sloppiness at worst, but when I came to the poem “It & Co.” I realized I’d been set up. Smith’s enigmatic “it” is in fact her way of teasing us for our insatiable itch for explanations:
. . . We

Have gone looking for It everywhere:
In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming
Like a wound from the ocean floor.
Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.
Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-
Appeasable. It is like some novels:
Vast and unreadable.

Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant. She first shows us how tempted she is to escape into abstraction and imagination — to stare dreamily at that Cone Nebula all day — but then reminds us how necessary it is to confront the reality of our existence back here on Earth. The tension is heightened by the fact that “The Speed of Belief,” that long elegy, dispenses with the vivid diction of the poems that precede it, taking up instead a resolutely plain form of speech. Like William Carlos Williams, who in his poem “Tract” tells the mourners at a funeral that their simple “ground sense” of grief is more powerful than any that could be conjured by “a troop of artists,” Smith seems determined to shun ornamental phrases as she describes her father’s sorrow over her grandfather’s death, and then her parallel sorrow:
When your own sweet father died

You woke before first light
And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,
And drank a glass of milk.
After you’d left, I sat in your place
And finished the toast bits with jam
And the cold eggs, the thick bacon
Flanged in fat, savoring the taste.
Read the full review here and here is a link to Life on Mars on Amazon.


Akbar said...

"Jupiter's vast canyons"??? :-O

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