“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.”
–Tracy K. Smith, excerpt from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”
The Mormon theology on which I was raised proffered a binary existence: a temporal realm and a spiritual realm, separated by a literal veil. It takes a prophetic eye to see from the temporal into the spiritual. Yet it takes a master writer’s ability to make the resulting vision, with its vast scales and darkly shrouded mysteries, meaningful to readers.
Poet Tracy K. Smith’s “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” originally published in the collection Life on Mars, revels in a similar sort of binary cosmology. Her poem moves back and forth, to and from the realms of science fiction and science reality. In some of the most vivid stanzas, we see the universe through the artful eyes of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Yet the oracle-eye referenced in the above quote is the non-fictional Hubble Space Telescope. Smith’s father spent a great portion of his engineering career bringing Hubble into operation.
I encourage you to read Smith’s poem, available in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website:
Did you read it? If not, pretty please do. If you did read it, please go back and read it again. Smith’s poem is a classic example of verse that must be read more than once for the fullest appreciation. Reading it only once may leave a casual reader with the mistaken impression the poem is a blur of jumbled images and unresolved themes—a bit like early Hubble images. Repeat readings bring into focus the poem’s excellent craftsmanship and profound implications.
Smith’s poem treats readers to bursts of alliteration and internal rhyme. Gruff mood swings, giving off an odd smoky charm, give way to erotic lyricism (tasteful mind you) with its obvious appeal. The push of patriarchy vies with the pull of matriarchy, both flanking the poem’s cinematic core. Yet the sci-fi world of 2001: A Space Odyssey finds a parallel in the workaday reality of Kubrik’s moviemaking.
If something catches your eye once in this poem, scan around and you will likely find its compliment in another stanza. For instance, the quote I started this post with is the second time the word “bowing” appears in the poem. Find the other use of bowing and revel in the age-old tableau of a single human wondering at the mysterious night sky, juxtaposed with the possibility of many more beings on distant worlds doing the same thing.
Questions for Comment
What images or phrases from the poem grabbed your attention? Why?