Tracy K. Smith, An excerpt from Life on Mars

Tracy K. Smith

An excerpt from Life on Mars

June 2010 - Tracy K. Smith, 2010-2011 Literature Protégée

From a collection of poems to be published in 2011 by Graywolf Press

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—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.

Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows

The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head

Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out

Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead

Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.

But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies

And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.

She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,

Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something

Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?


Last year, there was a father in the news who kept his daughter

Locked in a cell for decades. She lived right under his feet,

Cooking food, watching TV. The same pipes threading through his life

Led in and out of hers. Every year the footsteps downstairs multiplied.

Babies wailing through the night. Kids screaming to be let outside.

Every day, the man crept down into that room, bringing food,

Lying down with the daughter, who had no choice. Like a god

Moving through a world where every face looked furtively into his,

Then turned away. They cursed him to his back. He didn’t hear.

They begged him for air, and all he saw were bodies on their knees.

How close that room. What heat. And his wife upstairs, hearing

Their clamor underfoot, thinking the house must just be

Settling into itself with age.


Tina says dark matter is just a theory. Something

We know is there, but can’t completely prove.

We move through it, bound, sensing it snatch up

What we mean to say and turn it over in its hands

Like glass sifted from the sea. It walks the shore,

Watching that refracted light dance back and forth

Before tossing whatever it was back to the surf.


How else could we get things so wrong,

Like a story hacked to bits and told in reverse?—


He grabbed my blouse at the neck.

All I thought was This is my very best

And he will ruin it. Wind, dirt, his hands

Hard on me. I heard the others

Jostling to watch as they waited

For their turns.

They were not glad to do it,

But they were eager.

They all wanted to, and fought

About who would go first.

We went to the cart

Where others sat waiting.

They laughed and it sounded

Like the black clouds that explode

Over the desert at night.

I knew which direction to go

From the stench of what still burned.

It was funny to see my house

Like that—as if the roof

Had been lifted up and carried off

By someone playing at dolls.


Who understands the world, and when

Will he make it make sense? Or she?

Maybe there is a pair of them, and they sit

Watching the cream disperse into their coffee

Like the A-bomb. This equals that, one says,

Arranging a swarm of coordinates

On a giant grid. They exchange smiles.

It’s so simple, they’ll be done by lunchtime,

Will have the whole afternoon to spend naming

The spaces between spaces, which their eyes

Have been trained to distinguish. Nothing

Eludes them. And when the nothing that is

Something creeps toward them, wanting

To be felt, they feel it. Then they jot down

Equation after equation, smiling to one another, Lips sealed tight.


The earth beneath us. The earth

Around and above. The earth

Pushing up against our houses,

Complicit with gravity. The earth

Ageless watching us rise and curl.

Our spades, our oxen, the jagged lines

We carve into dirt. The earth

Nicked and sliced into territory.

Hacked and hollowed. Stoppered tight.

Tripwire. The earth ticking with mines,

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.


Animals everywhere, packed into stalls. Their legs

Stiff, pointing whichever way. Eyes fixed,

Unblinking because they know. They’ve seen

Our lives, heard us thinking to ourselves, and so

They wait, always ready. Won’t go quietly

In through the massive doors. Won’t go like pets

Into the big wet room where everything ends.

They nose the pellets meant for food. They eat

Only enough. They sip from the trough. Small sips,

Watching the workers as they pass.


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, shot through like ducks.

Every day. To ourselves and one another. And what

If what it is, and what sends it, has nothing to do

With what we can’t see? Nothing whatsoever

To do with a power other than muscle, will, sheer fright?

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