“Ad Astra” and Former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

The following guest post, explaining the connection between former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and the latest Brad Pitt film, “Ad Astra,” is by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer for the Center for the Book. It originally appeared on the Library of Congress blog

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Photo by Shawn Miller.

If you have seen the space film “Ad Astra”—Latin for “to the stars”—you likely marveled at its extraordinary special effects. As any fan of effects-laden films knows, these feats of grand spectacle require hundreds, if not thousands, of technical wizards to pull them off. You almost forget that what you are seeing could not happen in reality but only in a film studio.

Thus, if you are one of those people like me who stays to watch all a film’s credits, you know that “Ad Astra”’s credit stream seems to go on almost endlessly. My wife and I were sitting there in the IMAX theater, eyes nearly glazed over by the monotony of seeing so many unfamiliar names. Until one near the very end somehow jarred us into taking notice: Tracy K. Smith.

The director, James Gray, had thanked the former U.S. poet laureate. Smith served in the position for two years, from 2017 to 2019. I asked my wife, “Is it really that Tracy K. Smith?” Then she reminded me that Smith’s father had worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. And then I remembered that Smith had written the Pulitzer-winning poetry collection “Life on Mars.”

I was fortunate to travel with Smith during her “American Conversations“ tour of rural America. We were driving in the car and started talking about musical artists we like. Smith mentioned that she loves David Bowie (as do I). Knowing that “Life on Mars” shares a title with one of Bowie’s early songs, I asked her what the song meant to her. She said she thought he was writing about a “girl with the mousy hair” who is so turned off by the craziness of life on Earth that she is asking, “Is there life on Mars?” She is looking for a place where she can escape.

Alissa Williamson, writing for “Vox” about “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” one of the poems in “Life on Mars,” suggests what may have inspired Gray: “Smith invokes a variety of myths and stories, from the legend of the lost city of Atlantis to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ It concludes with the perfect description of how history, humanity and space interact in an ultimate search for meaning.”

Here’s an excerpt, reprinted with Smith’s permission:

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. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

Thoreau in Concord: Creating a Community of Writers

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. This summer I participated in a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop titled “The Concord Landscapes and Legacy […]

Hispanic Heritage Month Highlight: 50 New Literary Recordings Available to Stream Online

The following is a guest post by Catalina Gomez, curator for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, Hispanic Division. The post originally appeared on the 4 Corners of the World: International Collections blog. Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15th – October 15th) is a wonderful moment to showcase the many fascinating collections and archives within the […]

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo Joins Oprah Winfrey for SuperSoul Sunday on October 6

It’s been a busy summer and fall for U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. In just the few months since her historic appointment announcement, Joy has been featured in virtually every major news outlet, as well as in outlets with ties to her local and regional communities; released her newest poetry collection, An American Sunrise; has […]

Talking Poetry and Poets Laureate with Shari Werb, Director of the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement

It’s been nearly two weeks since Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s inaugural reading, and we’re still reeling from the event. If you missed it, you can tune in to watch the evening’s festivities via the Library’s YouTube site (with captions). Last week, we sat down with Shari Werb, director of the Library’s new Center for Learning, […]

Edwidge Danticat: The Making of a Novelist

The following post is by Neely Tucker, a writer-editor in the Library’s Office of Communications. It originally appeared on the Library of Congress blog. Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-born novelist who has become one of America’s most honored authors, told a crowd at the Coolidge Auditorium this week that she first felt the magic of storytelling as a […]

Through a Glass Darkly: The Room by Artist Alice Leora Briggs in Homage to Poet Mark Strand

The following guest post is by Katherine Blood, curator of fine prints in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. In our ongoing exploration of intersections between art and poetry in the Library’s graphic art collections, I’d like to share a fascinating, recent donation of somberly enthralling images by Texas artist Alice Leora Briggs (b. 1953). […]

Tomorrow Night: Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s Inaugural Reading

Tomorrow, Thursday, September 19, at 7 p.m., Joy Harjo will take the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building for the first time as 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. To mark this historic occasion, musicians Howard Cloud, Larry Mitchell, and Robert Muller will join Joy in a reading and […]

What is a Poet Laureate? Why is the Role Important?

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. In June, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden named Joy Harjo the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. On September 19, the date of her […]