Elizabeth Smart’s prose poem

1 May 2012

I first read Elizabeth Smart’s book ” By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept” as a 15-year old boy, growing up in Birmingham, at that time not one of the most culturally-aware of cities, and it was a life-changing experience. Not a very suitable book for a 15-year old hormonally-challenged boy to be reading, the women of the novel unlike any of the girls I was getting to know, and it wasn’t until I came to Cambridge that I started to meet women like those about whom Elizabeth Smart had written.

From the very first words ” By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept” is ravishing, more of a poem than a novel:

“I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire. Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten-minute intervals all through the five-hour wait.

But it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly born, trusting as the untempted. And for that moment, at that gaze, I am happy to forgo my future, and postpone indefinitely the miracle hanging fire. Her eyes shower me with their innocence and surprise.”

And on the next page:

“How can she walk through the streets, so vulnerable, so unknowing, and not have people and dogs and perpetual calamity following her?”

And so it goes on, and all too soon it is finished, we come to the end with regret. It is a masterpiece, not really neglected, those that know it cherish it, but there are all too few that know it. You can go for a long time without meeting anyone who has read it, unless you are talking to lecturers in English, or teachers of creative writing. It’s difficult to say what this book is about, there isn’t really a story-line, it breaks all of the rules, adjectives and adverbs abound, the narrative arc is not there, but there is tension on every page, and it is full of phrases that are so memorable that they creep into the conversation of those that love this book, and they will never remember that they are quoting her.

The only part of the book where there is any story at all is where the man and woman are arrested at the Arizona border, and charged with crossing the state border for immoral purposes (this is the 1940s, and a man and woman, not legally married to each other, sleeping together at a motel in Arizona is a crime). This part of the book is written as the strophe and anti-strophe of a biblical chapter, drawing on the words of the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.

“What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.)

Were you intending to commit fornication in Arizona? (He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.)”

Brigid Brophy, in the introduction to one edition, writes that the book’s essential manner is liturgical, it is a chant, it demands to be read aloud, to be given concert performance, and she adds that the entire book is a wound.

Elizabeth Smart wrote only two novels, this and “The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals”.. She had a life-long relationship with a poet, George Barker, now seldom read, to whom she gave four children, who she raised on her own, her story recounted in her journals “Necessary Secrets”, as moving as her novels, and in the biography “By Heart”, written by Rosemary Sullivan. Barker was married, never left his wife, and was said to have produced fifteen children by numerous women. Their relationship, often stormy, which continued for the whole of her life, gave Elizabeth Smart the self-knowledge and skills to write her masterpieces.

She asks herself in her last journal “Can I be contented with my lot? Well, I danced.”

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