Help me, Ziggy Stardust–you’re my last hope! The Bowie-olatry of Tracy K Smith

From Tracy K Smith’s collection Life on Mars (this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry) here is “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”:

Modern poets who write about death, time, the universe, God, and that sort of thing have to steer a perilous course between the Scylla of ponderous self-importance and the Charybdis of facile flippancy, and even skilled pilots (Jane Hirschfield, Billy Collins) are likely to lose a few oarsmen in the process.  So I remove my hat to Smith, whose serious evocation of loss (her own parents, her husband’s (?) lost love) is balanced by the rather silly redemption offered by the David Bowie in the sky:

But I’ll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall.
Her conception of time, that “nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only / To be wanted back badly enough,” echoes the ideas of modern physicists, who see it as another dimension like the three spatial ones.   Our sense that the past and future are radically different from the present  is an artifact of our perception; a physicist learns to regard past and future as existing, just as a baby learns that its mother has not ceased to exist just because she has left the room.  But Smith also undercuts this seriousness with a snappily quotidian  metaphor: “The hours / Plink past like water from a window A/C…”

This poem lives in the tug-of-war between our doomed lives here in meat-space and the icy permanence and artificiality of the astral Bowie, between the flush-faced running woman and the electronic screen that measures her life, between the Bowie who shops at the deli and the comet-like star-man who will never grow old, between the child who will touch life even if it burns (What “if”?  In the words of Groundskeeper Willie, it burns like a Glasgow bikini-wax) and the woman who wants to believe in  a metallic glam apotheosis.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats says that he doesn’t want to be reincarnated as “any natural thing,” but perhaps as a singing metal bird   I can imagine David Bowie diging this idea, and I can imagine Tracy K Smith going along for the ride.  I can also imagine her getting off at the next stop, walking away with a wave and a wink.

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2 Responses to Help me, Ziggy Stardust–you’re my last hope! The Bowie-olatry of Tracy K Smith

  1. apolena says:

    The New Yorker carried a long review of the book just about exactly one year ago —

    The review actually got me so interested that I got the book (and gave it to someone as present). I do like her poetry. Perhaps because we are exactly the same age, if I remember correctly.

  2. Pingback: Some Books of 2012, Poetry and Non-Fiction | lippenheimer

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