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A close up view of Candara, from a painting series inspired by space and planetary bodies

1.
Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.

Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows
The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head
Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out
Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead
Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.

But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies
And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.
She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,
Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something
Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?

–Excerpt from the poem, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

2011 will be remembered as a year with no novel deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. But thankfully the poetry recipient, Tracy K. Smith, has the gravitas to hold her place singlehandedly. Her award winning collection, Life on Mars, is a rich inquiry, complex and yet accessible. She has said the poems were inspired by her father who worked as an engineer on the Hubble project, and a contemplation of space and our place in that immense order of things runs throughout the poems. In the words of one reviewer in the New York Times, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery.”

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helm

I have recently (re)fallen under the spell of Levon Helm’s music. His latest releases—Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009)—have some cuts that will be part of the soundtrack for this phase of my life. “The Mountain,” by Steve Earle, (on Dirt Farmer) is a heartbreak every time I listen. And “When I Go Away” on Electric Dirt is the best “Lord, I’m ready to die” song I know right now.

Coming back from throat cancer and suffering a number of other calamities (like the burning down of his barn studio), Helm now comes across as an indestructible force. Both these releases are a full return to his southern roots. And with his daughter Amy singing harmony, the whole project feels like home.

I’ve loved Helm since his days in The Band. Even though his post-cancer voice has more of a rasp, this is still the guy who sang lead on those great Band recordings like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Rag Mama Rag.”

And then, in the New Yorker, I find this wonderful poem. Pure delight.

Alternate Take: Levon Helm

I’ve been beating my head all day long on the same six lines,
Snapped off and whittled to nothing like the nub of a pencil
Chewed up and smoothed over, yellow paint flecking my teeth.

And this whole time a hot wind’s been swatting down my door,
Spat from his mouth and landing smack against my ear.
All day pounding the devil out of six lines and coming up dry

While he drives donuts through my mind’s back woods with that
Dirt-road voice of his, kicking up gravel like a runaway Buick.
He asks Should I come in with that back beat, and whatever those

Six lines were bothered by skitters off like water in hot grease.
Come in with your lips stretched tight and that pig-eyed grin,
Bass mallet socking it to the drum. Lay it down like you know

You know how, shoulders hiked nice and high, chin tipped back,
So the song has to climb its way out like a man from a mine.

–Tracy K. Smith

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Tracy K. Smith has received awards and fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Whiting Foundation. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

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