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By Grand Central Station …

January 3, 2013

These have always seemed to me the most evocative words in the English language. They are followed by “I sat down and wept.”  I read Elizabeth Smart’s book many years ago, not really understanding the story, but in love with the language.

This Canadian woman fell in love, first with the poetry of George Barker, an English poet, and then met him and carried on an extended love affair with him while he lived in the USA. Her poetic novella draws on the rhythm and beauty of the Psalms, Song of Solomon, other biblical references and allusions to literature, and is considered to be a unique and exceptional composition. I have been deeply influenced by her writing and the concept of falling in love with language, and through language. Here are a couple of excerpts,

O where does he stalk like a horse in pastures very far afield? I cannot hear him, and silence writes more terrible things than he can ever deny. Is there a suspicion the battle is lost?

Certainly he killed me fourteen nights in succession. To rise again from such slaughter Messiah must indeed become a woman. He said this absence was the mere mechanics of the thing. But It is not the same.

Perhaps I am his hope. But then she is his present. And if she is his present, I am not his present. Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no-one has noticed I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me. For I am utterly collapsed. I lounge with glazed eyes, or weep tears of sheer weakness.  Grand Central Station 

We have the soul-torn couplets of David and Solomon, we can read the anguish of men who love whom they ought not to have, or whom they cannot have, or have whom they do not know what to with. But where can we read the poetry of Leah and Dinah, of Michal and Tamar, taken and not loved?

Blake’s Sunflowers by Elizabeth Smart 

1

Why did Blake say
‘Sunflower weary of time’?
Every time I see them
they seem to say
Now! with a crash
of cymbals!
Very pleased
and positive
and absolutely delighting
in their own round brightness.

2
Sorry, Blake!
Now I see what you mean.
Storms and frost have battered
their bright delight
and though they are still upright
nothing could say dejection
more than their weary
disillusioned
hanging heads.

I give you Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, both authors born in 1913, and so an appendix of sorts to the previous post.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2013 9:54 am

    Well, Suzanne; you’ve got me reading another book. In reading reviews to prepare, I’m fascinated by the ambiguity in Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (as noted by Robert McGill here and even more by Ingrid Norton, who here (retaining the private and humorous CAPITAL LETTER EMPHASIS of Angela Carter) says,

    Depending on whose opinion one trusts, the novel is either “a violent and adroit piece of home-wrecking” (Cyril Connolly, 1945) or “like saying a tragic, pagan erotic rosary” (Brigid Brophy, 1966). The novel is wildly praised as a work of linguistic inventiveness and beauty, but beyond that, responses often divide based on the love affair itself. Allies of Elizabeth Smart’s romantic vision include Yann Martel, Michael Ondaatje, and ex Smiths-frontman Morrissey.

    Other express reservations. When the book was reissued in the late 1960s, novelist Angela Carter praised the novel in a Guardian review as “like Madame Bovary blasted by lighting” but later wrote privately to her friend, critic Lorna Sage, that one of her motivations for founding the feminist press Virago was “the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT[sic], exquisite prose though it might contain. (BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it, I should hope.)”

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 4, 2013 1:20 pm

    Yes, of course, this moral ambiguity is what I meant to highlight. Just as the Hebrew Bible is often morally ambiguous. Who does not find Abraham, Laban and Jacob, David and his family morally ambiguous.

    But the important thing is for women to read the writing of a woman who pursued, as David did, an illicit relationship, and yet, she was unable to orchestrate a marriage out of this. She became a successful editor, the highest paid in England at that time, and a single mother of 4 children.

    Once again, the point is that women only experience literature, and the Bible, as men do, when they read the writing of women. Then they have some remote inkling of what it would be like to be a man in the world, to be reflected in every mirror, for better or worse, to be on every shelf, to be the “everyman” which women are far from being.

    Also, if one read the works of women, alongside those of men, and I put forward both Smart and Barker, then one could bury the notion of the passive woman, the object of affection, or not, woman the pursued, but not the pursuer, woman the victim, or the idol, but not the protector, not the provider.

    And that is why Bertha Pappenheim translated into German the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamlin, so she could provide to other women, an example of woman the agent, woman in full, as men have always had available to them.

    Here is a review I meant to excerpt, but forgot,

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704462704575590283489177108.html

    “Grand Central” stands between the heyday of prose poetry in late 19th-century France and the form’s resurgence in the 1980s. Thanks in part to descriptions such as “Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain” and declamations such as “My darling, my darling, lie down with us now for you also are earth whom nothing but love can sow,” its title and imagery evoke biblical texts such as the 137th Psalm and the Song of Songs.

    Amid Ms. Smart’s otherworldly, religiously tinged inhabitation of newfound romantic love, “Grand Central” stays rooted in the real. (“But what can the woodsorrel and the mourning-dove, who deal only with eternals, know of the thorny sociabilities of human living?”) This attitude comes across with considerable dark humor when Ms. Smart juxtaposes her consuming thoughts of Mr. Barker against the clinical questions asked of them by customs agents: “When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.)”

    Ms. Smart (1913-1986) is an unlikely author of one of the 20th century’s greatest examinations of love in all its impossible, unconditional glory. She was born to a privileged family in Ottawa, spent her twenties traveling the world on behalf of a women’s group, and in middle age worked as an editor and an advertising copywriter. …

    Perhaps it was the early fate of “Grand Central” that accounted for Ms. Smart’s fractured career. Its first edition numbered just 2,000 copies, many of them bought up and burned by Ms. Smart’s mother, who pulled strings to have the book banned in Canada. As a result, it and its author remained obscure. Ms. Smart would not receive proper recognition until 1966, when the British publisher Panther Books reissued it. In the introduction, novelist Brigid Brophy states her conviction that “Grand Central” stands as one of the no “more than half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.”

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 4, 2013 1:22 pm

    Given this review in the Wall Street Journal, it is surprising to me that she does not appear in whatever sources one uses for anniversaries in 2013.

  4. January 5, 2013 7:21 pm

    “But where can we read the poetry of Leah and Dinah, of Michal and Tamar, taken and not loved?”

    This adds another element of poignant depth to the Magnificat–and also to the song of that earlier Mariam… much to ponder.

    And the sunflower poem is breathtaking. Another addition to my “must read” list.

  5. Elizabeth Taylor-Mead permalink
    January 6, 2013 8:29 am

    I own the screen rights to BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT. I met Elizabeth Smart’s publisher at a dinner part in London in 1980. I was a young independent filmmaker and he gave me a copy of the book. I was thunderstruck. I met Elizabeth soon after and we became friends. I stayed at her cottage, The Dell, in Suffolk, regularly. I painted her kitchen.

    After optioning the book for several years, I acquired the rights in perpetuity.I met George Barker and his last wife, Elspeth, and met Elizabeth’s children. When I found I was pregnant and abandoned by my baby’s father, I went to stay with Elizabeth. She cooked for me, took care of me, and when I left to drive back to London, she filled my car with yellow flowers.

    After Elizabeth passed away, I made a documentary film about the nature of torch songs, MY MAMA DONE TOLD ME. In it, I wove passages from By Grand Central Station throughout, creating scenes where the great Canadian dancer, and former prima ballerina Lynn Seymour, portrays the character in the book. Britain’s Channel Four broadcast the film as their Valentine’s Day special. It was shown on television internationally, had screenings in the US at MoMA and Boston’s MFA, and won prizes as several film festivals. I spent years developing a feature film based on the book, and came close several times. All these years later, living in the US now, I am still hopeful. I know it’s possible, and necessary.

    For anyone who’s read the book, December 27, 2013 was certainly a red letter day.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 6, 2013 7:51 pm

    Elizabeth,

    Thank you so much for your comment! How enriching. Yours is such a beautiful tribute to Elizabeth Smart as a caring person and friend. I will look out for the movie some day.

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