This week I’ve been thinking a lot about Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. It’s one of my favorite books by Smith and I shared a poem from it this past Sunday on audio. So, I thought I’d write about “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” from the book tonight.
I love this poem because I love thinking about space and the universe (I mean, this is Astro Poets, after all) and also because it considers these things as they happen on the scale of performance. The poem plays on the notion of the soundtrack, of the ways in which experience gets summed up into a display of itself within a motion picture. It is especially a play on the ways in which outer space and the vastness of existence gets performed and in what contexts. It makes us question all of the depictions of space that we have experienced in Hollywood movies and other media and how or why this may or may not be the reality of space.
Sometimes when I read this poem I think that Smith is also likely playing on specific Hollywood movies that depict space. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind most readily, as this movie, with its visions of the lonely vacuum of silenced space is so deep within my imagination. When you read the poem, what movies (and their depictions of space) does it make you think of?
What thrills me about the poem is also what terrifies me––the ways that the poem beautifully deals with the noise in space. Of course it is a poem that is a “soundtrack” and is in so many ways an album of the sounds that the universe makes. The poem starts with the “first track” that “almost swings.” It’s that “almost” that gets me. Because within this casual use of the word, Smith is able to capture the difference between the earth that we know and experience daily and the outer space that so many of us only know through books, pictures, and film. What does “swings” really mean in the space of the universe that continues to be vast and unknowable? What is the “Crinkle and drag” or the “metal shavings/ In molasses” that the poem seeks to use to explain the sounds of a landscape still beyond our reach of total understanding? It is only through poetry that we can begin to comprehend these imagined and real sounds.
The other thing I love about “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (and the entire Life on Mars) is the way that it integrates science as a valid lens of inquiry in a poem. After all, both science and poetry can help us discover things about the universe and what it means to exist. Both are tied to the process of knowledge building itself. I’ve often thought that to have a faith in science is to have a faith in poetry, and I have faith and love for both. Poetry and science are sometimes put at odds with each other and treated as if they are opposing ways of understanding reality. I’ve always found that to be unfortunate and a waste of the power of both (and the power of human knowledge through collaboration). This hard year continues to teach me the awesome respect both science and poetry (and scientists and poets) deserve, and I hope that the future will bring them ways to act in concert with one another.
In the final couplet, Smith writes: “Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears / Disappears as if returning somewhere.” This also terrifies me too, but of course, in a good way. This silence that “taunts” is “dar[ing]” us to imagine sound and to make sound. All that goes away leaves to return to “somewhere” it has gone before. These lines remind me of the “Law of Conservation of Mass”—that no matter can be created or destroyed—and that everything in the universe ebbs and flows from its origin and end. It’s scary to think this—that nothing ever really leaves in the expansiveness of space—but it’s comforting, too. It suggests that everything—especially, in the case of this poem, sound—exists in an endless loop of music. Maybe it’s poetry itself that picks it up and lets us listen. Or maybe, more likely, poetry is the endless loop.
Now I haven’t forgotten about the astrology part of things, of course. First of all, it’s Aries season and Tracy K. Smith is an awesome Aries. And, honestly, what could be more Aries than a poem about the universe? Aries are always thinking of the big picture and the wide expanse that is existence, and also performance, especially a motion picture (of which we’d all like to star in, in one way or another). I think of Aries sometimes as the unacknowledged philosophers of the Zodiac. It’s hard to see that side of them when they are so busy running around, doing everything and nothing simultaneously, waving hello and goodbye all of the time. But inside they are always thinking of the big questions: Why are we here and what good can come of the answer to this question? I hope they keep asking.
So, as we enjoy the new Aries daffodils, maybe in their honor, consider these enormous questions, too? Or better yet: what sounds do you think play in space? Write your own poem as the performance: the sound and the answer.
Wishing you a happy day tomorrow!