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The Marginalian

The Universe in Verse: Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith Reads from “Life on Mars”

The Universe in Verse: Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith Reads from “Life on Mars”

At the turn of the twentieth century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the remarkable astronomers known as the Harvard Computers, women who did significant cosmological work long before they could vote — made a discovery that allowed astronomers to calculate the distance between Earth and faraway galaxies for the first time. Her data later became the foundation upon which Edwin Hubble formulated what is now known as Hubble’s Law — the first observational indication that the universe is expanding.

Half a century after the inception of Hubble’s Law, in the late 1970s, engineers began work on an astronomical apparatus more ambitious than any previous human attempt to observe the universe: the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched into orbit in 1990.

One of those early engineers was the father of Pulitzer-winning poet Tracy K. Smith.

At The Universe in Verse, Smith read the final section of her long, beautiful poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” — a title borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — found in her sublime poetry collection Life on Mars (public library). The poem is Smith’s quest to bring lyrical and cinematic language to, as she herself frames it, “this real mystery, the universe that we belong to, that we’re at home in and yet such strangers of, in a way.” Please enjoy:


When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Raegan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. 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.

In a stroke of glorious serendipity, the background against which Smith read her poem at The Universe in Verse featured a crisp, stunning image of the Rosetta Galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope a generation after those first imperfect photographs — a feat of science and engineering that would have made her father proud, built, like all progress, on the toilsome trial and error that preceded it, by the pink, exhausted eyes that pushed past the failings.

Other highlights from The Universe in Verse include Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Diane Ackerman’s ode to our search for extraterrestrial life.

Published May 12, 2017




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