I’m almost ashamed to admit that I came to Tracy Smith’s Life on Mars only after she won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I had seen the title, and I immediately remembered the wonderful David Bowie song, and I felt just a little suspicious of another poet going again to popular culture for a reference to elevate the poems into relevance. Boy, was I wrong! Tracy Smith does indeed go back to those old Bowie tunes where science fiction becomes an alternative to boredom, but she also includes the news stories of the moment, from mass murderers to Abu Ghraib. But all of this is included in a book of poems that is at some level an elegy for her father.

She tells us early on that “my father worked on the Hubble Telescope”–he was one of the engineers. At the end of that long poem–titled “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” a phrase that will sound familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey–she lets us in on the embarrassment a child of one of those scientists must have felt at the first spectacular failures of the space telescope: “The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed/For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe.” And then we hear her pride when repairs have been made and the Hubble begins to send back the famous pictures that reach out to the very edge of infinity: “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.” So this extraordinary poem moves through popular culture and science fiction to some real science that at the end places her own father in the center. The poet’s sense of loss becomes pervasive, even though she has given it an impersonal dress. Along the way she allows herself a meditation on the meaning of all those empty spaces:

Perhaps the greatest error is believing we’re alone,

That the others have come and gone–a momentary blip–

When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,

Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel

Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,

Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones

At whatever are their moons. They live wondering

If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,

And the great black distance they–we–flicker in.

This unforgettable book has several poems like this one, poems that reach after the largest themes while keeping themselves grounded in the particularities of the poet’s sense of loss yet move outside the confines of one life because they assume the dress of our popular culture. But there are other, smaller poems that start out funny and then turn quickly into something often deeply provocative. In Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith proves herself a masterful poet using the whole range of our language to contemplate the very edges of the real and the emotional universes.

She reads from her work at White Lotus Farms on September 29.