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January 25, 2021
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News + Views

Boerum Hill’s Pulitzer Poet

By Lisa M. Collins
Photo Joshua Kristal

Last week, on her birthday, Tracy K. Smith of Boerum Hill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The prize came for her third collection of poems entitled, Life on Mars, which is roughly a work about Smith’s memories in the wake of the passing of her father, who worked on the Hubble Telescope, and her thoughts on existence.

“I didn’t think that I was setting out to write a book about God and about death and about the finite nature of our lives, but those are the questions that were really on the surface for me,” when she wrote the book, Smith said during a PBS interview.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

My God, It’s Full of Stars – (Section) 1

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.

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.

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.

Tracy K. Smith. “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” from Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

Smith, an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton University, is the second Brooklyn writer in a year to win a Pulitzer. Fort Greene novelist Jennifer Egan won the prize for fiction last  year.

Watch an interview with Smith on PBS, or read the book review in The New York Times.

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