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

This guest post, explaining the connnection 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. 

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 the “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.

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