Tracy Smith does indeed go back to those old Bowie tunes where science fiction becomes an alternative to boredom, but she also includes the news stories of the moment, from mass murderers to Abu Ghraib. But all of this is included in a book of poems that is at some level an elegy for her father.
She tells us early on that "my father worked on the Hubble Telescope"--he was one of the engineers. At the end of that long poem--titled "My God, It's Full of Stars," a phrase that will sound familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey--she lets us in on the embarrassment a child of one of those scientists must have felt at the first spectacular failures of the space telescope: "The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed/For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe." And then we hear her pride when repairs have been made and the Hubble begins to send back the famous pictures that reach out to the very edge of infinity: "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." So this extraordinary poem moves through popular culture and science fiction to some real science that at the end places her own father in the center. The poet's sense of loss becomes pervasive, even though she has given it an impersonal dress. Along the way she allows herself a meditation on the meaning of all those empty spaces:
Perhaps the greatest 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,