Tracy K. Smith’s spellbinding poem “My God, It’s full of Stars” is a part of her collection Life on Mars published in 2011 that comprises free verse compositions about her father. The title is borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey whose film adaptation finds a space in the poet’s creation. Through metaphysical elements, Smith journeys to the vast and unending universe and her imagination lends her a lens to view this magnificent space in multiple designs and forms comprehensible to humans. She celebrates different binaries as part of our existence by bringing them together in her thought-provoking work of art.
My God It’s Full of Stars | Summary
The following poem is metaphysical in nature that employs the first-person plural as the speaker engages with the readers in a conversation. It is penned in free verse with five sections that do not follow a consistent stanza division and has multiple instances of enjambment. The major premise of the poem is the vast expanse of the universe which is still not known completely and is a cosmic entity that absorbs everything that humans experience, including their pain and misery. It is also a link between the known and the unknown, the physical and the spiritual, and the tangible and the intangible.
Imagination enables the speaker, assumed to be the poet persona, to unravel the mysteries of the universe and cope with the grief over the loss of her father. Myths, fantasy, science, and popular culture come together to search for meanings and the undiscovered reality that exists beyond us. By setting up her poem in a distinct space, the poet allows her readers the freedom of thought to view the world the way they wish to. One also observes an inquiry into existentialism and the notion of time. The free mind lets the ideas travel to different periods and question certain practices. Past, present, and future work alongside throughout the poem.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Section 1
This section presents the universe in the light of different metaphors that suggest the commonly held perceptions about it by humans. Since it is a post-World War II poem, major issues revolving around the cold war, the supremacy of ideals, conquests of land, capitalism’s battle with communism, and the race to conquer the otherwise unconquerable i.e. the space are the preoccupations of a poet.
Analysis, Lines 1-6
“We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.
Or one man against a city of zombies. One man
Who is not, in fact, a man, sent to understand
The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants
Let loose down the pants of America. Man on the run.”
The poem begins with the notion of the universe as something to be understood in terms conceivable to human beings, just ignoring its size. The difference between knowledge and perception foregrounds itself. The magnanimity of this otherwise incomprehensible space is picturized as a single man standing against an army or an entire city. With a repetition of “one man,” an emphasis on the insignificance of human beings can be noted. A subtle hint towards the politics of the day also draws attention. Reference to America’s pants and the red ants signal the race between the superpowers Russia and the United States of America to enter space. These countries send men to space to “understand” the dark and huge reality.
“Man with a ship to catch, a payload to drop,
This message going out to all of space. . . . Though
Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent,
Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics
Of an outmoded design. Some like to imagine
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,
Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best
While the father storms through adjacent rooms
Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,
Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw.”
Astronauts enter space in their spaceships and often such ships drop their instruments or satellites into space, depending on the purpose of the expedition. The aim is to know about the universe in its raw structure but the speaker also ponders over the life in the universe which might be like the sea. The comparison between the sea and the universe deems suitable in their sheer depth and never-ending reach. Also like the sea where light, sound, and gravity work differently, the universe also has its own law.
The alliteration “buoyant, bizzarely benign” conveys the old-age beliefs about the nature of the universe as floaty and kind like the sea. But is it safe too? Also, there are some other imaginations at play as well. Spiritually, the universe is looked at as a mother who cares for and protects her children from all the confusion and negative forces. It is also looked at as an angry father who punishes his children for their wrong deeds. There is a Biblical allusion to the Lord’s Prayer in the phrase “Kingdom Come” when the universe as a father figure comes at humans with the full force of destruction.
Analysis, Lines 19-25
“Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.”
With her imagination, the poet persona is able to imagine and manifest the universe into material things like the rural childhood library to explain the inexplicable. The “tall shelves” and the “big open room” direct the readers to the wideness of the universe. Interestingly, books with their infinite knowledge also hold the capacity to transport a reader to another dimension. They open a world of multiple possibilities. So a library becomes a universe in itself. However, the creative use of the phrase “pencils in a cup at Circulation” brigs to mind a potent image of racism that the speaker’s father experienced in his childhood. He was denied opportunities as an African-American.
Further, the books in the library are arranged alphabetically and are lent out to people for a stipulated time frame. A reader holds the book and it looks at him/her directly in the face. While books do open a world of possibilities, they often become a source of comfort to a distressed soul by proclaiming hope. But the section’s end with “remarkable lies” seems to suggest the poet persona’s unpleasant experience with a book she must have read which promised her a hope yet to be fulfilled. Thus, the conception of the universe takes a personal note here.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Section 2
This section preoccupies itself with how space and the universe are envisioned in the past as something to be explored and conquered.
“Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in. He asked once politely.
A second time with force from the diaphragm. The third time,
He did it like Moses: arms raised high, face an apocryphal white.
Shirt crisp, suit trim, he stoops a little coming in,
Then grows tall. He scans the room. He stands until I gesture,
Then he sits. Birds commence their evening chatter. Someone fires
Charcoals out below. He’ll take a whiskey if I have it. Water if I don’t.
I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back.
That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.”
The tone of the poem shifts and pop culture references make their way in. Charlton Heston was a famous American actor who now is a part of an interview the speaker imagines to be conducting. His famous role as Moses in The Ten Commandments comes to visualization as he raises his arm in all-white attire. The purpose of the actor’s interview is to fetch information about the universe. Since has played a role that can answer existential questions, the speaker puts it to use. Temporal distortion through a contrast between the inside conversation that is from the past and the outside world which is the present is drawn. Birds are chirping and the smell of charcoal burning in the neighborhood intervenes in the speaker’s imagination. The actor spills out about the space’s future which was bright before the world changed.
“Hero, survivor, God’s right-hand man, I know he sees the blank
Surface of the moon where I see a language built from brick and bone.
He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,
Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth. And:
May I smoke? The voices outside soften. Planes jet past heading off or back.
Someone cries that she does not want to go to bed. Footsteps overhead.
A fountain in the neighbor’s yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors. It was another time, he says, picking up again.
We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth
Toward God-knows-where? I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.”
The speaker subtly satirizes the actor’s knowledge about the universe as limited to the “surface of the moon” that lacks depth whereas she has a wider reach to the uncertain world through the power of language. His role as Moses gives him a sense of power which suddenly diminishes as he asks for permission to smoke. Again the outside world intervenes. The “fountain” is personified to be talking to itself and the “night air” acts as a medium of transportation for the different sounds to enter the speaker’s interview. The actor reflects on the human desire to conquer the grandness of the universe in his line “riding the earth/ Toward God-knows-where?” The universe in an all-consuming entity whose end is unknown and by referring to the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, the poem communicates the regenerating phenomenon of the universe which transforms the existence of a substance. Even though the form has changed, the universe’s magnitude grants it insignificant which makes it appear invisible to our naked eyes.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Section 3
The following lines are doubly spaced and consider the probability of extraterrestrial life in outer space along with the possibility of the dead knowing everything that the living beings are incapable of comprehending.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Section 2, Lines 47-56
“Perhaps the great 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.”
One’s limited knowledge and ego about their loneliness in the living world becomes a subject of mockery by the poet’s persona. While on earth people live and die leaving a blank space, the space might be full of people who leave the living world. The speaker imagines the life of such people who are not seen ordinarily. They possess the knowledge that she aspires to learn and the “great black distance” i.e. the universe is a gap between people like her and the dead souls. Humans linger on the universal space and are never able to reach that point.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Lines 57-67
“Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.”
The speaker contemplates the reaction of the dead after seeing galaxies in space and the engines of the spaceships. She wants to witness the confused state of mind the dead would display and the business of earth’s explorations. The speaker also wishes to encompass everything but not let anything out including time. She desires to stop time to facilitate a meeting with her father in the past chilly winter days of 1959. In short, the universe is a magical space, that she believes can fulfill her desires.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Section 4
This is a fairly interesting section where the poet imagines the universe as a science fiction film and draws references to Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Technological advancements and innovations in the field of space study are brought up to enlighten the dark recesses.
Analysis, Lines 68-75
“In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint-in-water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on. . . .”
The speaker refers to the fictional character of the film directed by Stanley Kubrick where he transports to space and finds himself in a lightshow-like imagery. The universe then opens up like a huge jungle (simile) were like a bee (simile) that is in search of honey, the character is too searching for knowledge. But like the sea whose depth is difficult to navigate, the space too is endless and hard to conquer.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Lines 76-84
“In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?”
Continuing with the film’s scenes, the poet-persona converges the sea with the space. The natural landscape mingles with space objects and the character’s perception of them is like a blind man’s. Even the audience who watches the film in theatres does not know the thoughts that the character is processing. After witnessing magnificence, is he able to return back to his normal life or does he transcend to a life that ends his mortal one and begins the celestial one. The edge of human understanding is the crux of these lines.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Lines 85-87
“On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.”
After a movie is shot, one has to return to reality. The film set that manifests universe in its own way again turns black and the idea of the unknown surrounds everyone.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Section Section 5
The last section of the poem asserts the universe as the target for exploration and various conjectures in the field of space studies.
My God, It’s Full of Stars | Analysis, Lines 88- 90
“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.”
The poem takes a personal tone in these lines as the speaker recounts her father’s work on the Hubble Telescope which was a serious mission. Like the medical professionals, her father and his team work on their experiment with full dedication and pure intention. There is sibilance in the second line “surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed” to emphasize the disciplinary nature and the dress code of the aeronautical scientists and engineers.
“He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan 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.”
Her father reads a book by another scientist during the years of American president Ronald Reagan which is categorized by his escalation of the cold war. “The Button” refers to the nuclear bombings which were dropped on their enemies. During such a politically chaotic time, the speaker’s father is consistent in his research and follows it religiously like an oracle. He is proud of his profession and mission and his arms rising to hint at a religious tone as well as his stress-free attitude towards the vast expanse and no gravity zone in space. Like the telescope at a micro level and NASA at the larger goal of reaching space, people on earth too in their childlike innocence send messages to the world above. Things which are significant and hold importance on earth like royal weddings and celebrity deaths are insignificant when compared to the universe.
Analysis, Lines 100-104
“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.”
The final lines of the poem highlight the generation of new words whenever a discovery comes into existence every year. It also portrays the technical glitches that the telescope faces which demoralizes the speaker’s father and his team but they work on it and their hard work bears fruit. The images finally allow a peep into the unknown reality. It is like an eye that looks back and turns the table on its viewers. If the universe is looked at, we too are susceptible to an entity’s perception and object of study.