“Our Eyes Adjust to the Dark”: The Cosmic Sublime in Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.18778/2083-2931.10.20

Keywords:

Tracy K. Smith, American poetry, the cosmic sublime, the postmodern sublime, elegy

Abstract

The cosmic sublime, as the most spectacular manifestation of the natural sublime, offers rich stimuli for the literary imagination, as well as for various interactions between science, culture and art. In her book of poetry Life on Mars (2011), Tracy K. Smith uses tropes of cosmic perspective, scientific gaze and interplanetary travel to problematize the relationship between human finitude and the boundless unknown of the universe. Written after the death of her father, who was one of the engineers of the Hubble telescope, the volume links personal elegy and the work of mourning with philosophical questions about the relationship between the self and scientifically framed visions of the cosmos. The primary intention of my study is to examine the strategies and implications of the poet’s revisionary engagement with the aesthetics, rhetoric, popular mythology and mysticism of the spatial infinite. Smith employs the cosmic sublime not only as a spatial mode of perception but also as a metaphor of the emotional response to death. Her adaptation of the category expands the frame of reference for the purposes of an existential inquiry into the nature of humanity and transcendence. The celebration of imaginative freedom and modern science’s command of nature is further linked to constant apprehension about the human abuse of power and to anxieties triggered by the sublime mythology of transcendence, informed by a desire for dominating the other to the point of possession.

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Author Biography

Paulina Ambroży, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań

Paulina Ambroży is Associate Professor and Head of American Literature Department at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. She is the author of a book (Un)concealing the Hedgehog: Modernist American Poets and Contemporary Critical Theories (Poznań, 2012), which approaches American modernist poetry through contemporary critical theories, and a co-author of a monograph on the poetry of Paul Muldoon—Between the Self and the Other (Poznań, 2018). She has received two research grants from the Fulbright Foundation: a Junior Fulbright research grant (Stanford University, 2002–2003) and a Senior Fulbright Advanced Research Grant (The University of Chicago, 2014). Her research interests include modernist and contemporary American poetry, 19th-century American literature, word-image relations, intermedial studies, and literary theory. Currently, she is working on an intermedial project The Turn of the Sign: The Crisis of Representation in American Poetry and the Visual Arts.

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Published

2020-11-24

How to Cite

Ambroży, P. (2020). “Our Eyes Adjust to the Dark”: The Cosmic Sublime in Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture, (10), 364-391. https://doi.org/10.18778/2083-2931.10.20