I WAS WEIGHING whether to read last year's Pulitzer winner for poetry, Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars (which I hope is named for the David Bowie song), when I noticed this on my shelves. I tend to buy more books than I read, unfortunately; I must have picked this up in 2007 or 2008, when it won the James Laughlin Award. I read it over the last two or three days. Does it make me want to read Life on Mars? Well...not so much.
The longer, more ambitious, more engagé poems do not work, in my view. "'Into the Moonless Night'." a 9-page poem in dramatic form about some of the victims of Joseph Kony, is perhaps more tonally sophisticated than Invisible Children, but only just. The book's opening poem, "History," a 10-page, multi-section poem about colonization and slavery, includes these lines:
Elsewhere and at the same time,
Some sentient scrap of first flame,
Of being ablaze, rages on,
Hissing air, coughing still more air,
Sighing rough sighs around the ideas
Of man, woman, snake, fruit.
We all know the story
Of that god.
Oh, dear. Yes, I believe I have heard that story. Perhaps too often, really. Why does this sort of thing win prizes while Mathias Svalina's Destruction Myth does not?
The choices "flame," "ablaze," and "rages" make the whole passage sound a bit too much like high school journal poetry, really. I sense the same problem in a line from "Slow Burn," a poem that seems to be about outcasts of several kinds--"Minds flayed by visions no one can fathom." The idea that marginalized people are tormented by unutterable truths...I don't know...too romanticized, perhaps? And the image of a vision that peels the skin off people's minds while also being too deep to be measured...does that work? Or did Smith just like the poetic pizzaz of "flayed" and "fathom"?
There are some good things, though. There are some darkly intriguing poems about the end of a relationship in Part II. In one of them, "One Man at a Time," one of the men is described so:
He carried himself like the leader
Of a small nation whose citizens
Whispered about his extravagant wife
And brewed their own beer
In basements hung with forbidden flags.
The ex- as a tinpot dictator is not new, but to let the image run on from there to imagine the domestic lives of his people--Smith gives the image room to take on a life of its own, relinquishes a bit of control, with happy results. If Life on Mars has more of this sort of thing....