- "Vast and Unreadable":Tracy K. Smith, Astronomy, and Lyric Opacity in Contemporary Poetry
Because you have the right to be obscure, first to yourself.
Édouard Glissant, "The Thinking of the Opacity of the World"
At a 2016 event celebrating Emily Dickinson and astronomy, Tracy K. Smith began by reading a poem that is seemingly remote from cosmic concerns. "I'm Nobody! Who are you?," Dickinson's poem begins,
Are you―Nobody―too?Then there's a pair of us!Don't tell! they'd advertise―you know!
How dreary―to be―Somebody!How public―like a Frog―To tell one's name―the livelong June―To an admiring Bog!(Smith and DeVorkin)
Dickinson's poem explores lyric intimacy and relations: the "I" proclaims its hidden complexities through its professed self-negation to the readerly "you," creating a conspiratorial pair veiled from the loud, vain public world. In her memoir, Smith frames "I'm Nobody!" as an origin story for her poetic career. It was the first poem that worked powerfully on her: "I liked the sense of privacy the poem seemed to urge, as if there is some part of everyone―like the imagination, the spirit, or whatever it is that gravitates toward the language of poetry―worth protecting from the world" (Ordinary Light 146). [End Page 1] Smith's poems, like Dickinson's, often use astronomical discourse to suggest the protection of personal experience. In her volume Life on Mars (2011), Smith elegizes her father, Floyd William Smith, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, through cosmic metaphors, inflating his loss to the size of the universe and personalizing the cosmos to match the homey and private tenor of that loss. The volume teems with collectives marked by the pronoun "we"―a species "we" held together on a vanishingly tiny planet, a collective African American "we" that never quite emerges. Above all Life on Mars explores collective relations through the small-scale, irreducible lyric "I." Smith disclosed at the Dickinson event that she is most compelled by astronomy's inward gaze, its intimacy as much as its immensity. "There are many poems of Dickinson's that are thinking up and out in physical, astronomical terms," Smith notes, but "what is happening in her work that's most chilling and comforting to me is that looking into a place within the self" ("Clockwork Universe"). The juxtaposition of "chilling and comforting" describes the quality of relations explored in Life on Mars, relations within the self and between the self and others.
Ironically, Smith remarked on the private dimensions of Dickinson's astronomy in a context that Dickinson would have found "dreary" and "public": the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washing-ton, DC, in December 2016, one month before the inauguration of Donald Trump. Smith concluded the event with a reading of her "Political Poem." After winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Life on Mars, Smith went on to serve as US poet laureate under the Trump administration from 2017 to 2019, following Rita Dove (1993–1995) and Natasha Trethewey (2012–2014) as the third African American woman to hold the position.1 Smith navigates the private and public dimensions of lyric, a task complicated by assumptions that African American poets speak publicly, collectively, and loudly rather than privately, personally, and quietly. She uses astronomy to investigate lyric subjectivity as her poetry reflects on and travels through racist systems in which, as Kevin Quashie puts [End Page 2] it, "black subjectivity exists for its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of the human individuality of the person who is black" (4). Smith's poetry is in a tradition Quashie identifies as the Black "quiet," with its focus on interior life through quiet (as opposed to loudly avant-garde and resistant) aesthetics. In an interview shortly after her appointment as poet laureate, Smith discussed poetry specifically in terms of quiet, reflecting that she hoped the public engagement dimension of her position "might open up inroads to . . . quieter kinds of conversations" (Kellogg). Poems, she explains, speak at "a decibel level that sits below the register of the media that we live with," the "advertising...