#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Smart

Blog Post 16: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

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I am standing in 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.

This extraordinary short work is based on Elizabeth’s Smart’s long term relationship with poet George Barker (they were on/off for eighteen years and she had four of his fifteen children). Smart first heard of Barker when browsing in a book shop on the Charing Cross Road as a young woman. She found a collection of his poetry and from that moment set about meeting the man, which would take her a few years to accomplish. She was from Canada, he was British but living in Japan. With his wife. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the Second World War was raging. But Barker was the one she had ‘picked out from the world’. It is as if from this moment, Fate had decided; Smart was bound to Barker through hell and high water. ‘The trap is sprung, and I am in the trap.’

I hardly know where to begin with this one. How can you define ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept?’ Prose-poetry? Poetic prose? A novella? A short story? A lament? Whatever it is, it has most certainly divided opinion. Feminists question why an educated, intelligent, talented woman would need a man so utterly and desperately. Others have called Smart a marriage wrecker (despite the fact that George was the one with so many wives and mistresses). Some believe the writing over-wrought and melodramatic. Some are changed forever when they first read it. Others, like me, cannot quite decide. The reader response I have depends on where I am and how I am.

One thing for sure is that Smart’s work has a cult following. Morrissey’s lyrics are littered with homages to this text. I even found two from ‘Father Ted’ – ‘Down with that sort of thing’ and ‘Careful Now’! This is one of those books you carry around with you as a student, referencing it to your own life, wondering if you will ever know the ecstasy and despair and physical longing of love like this.

Its language is drawn from myth and legend but mainly from the Bible, in particular the Song of Solomon, but also from the Psalms which were often David’s lamentations, his cries out to God. Psalm 137 (celebrated by Boney M, no less) is the origin of the title of this extraordinary piece of work.

Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate.

Like ‘Wuthering Heights’ (also referred to) this is not necessarily a story of love, but of jealousy and obsession and betrayal. And yet, somehow, love seems to win through despite its huge emotional cost and long-ranging fallout. In the words sung by Paloma Faith: Only love can hurt like this.

Whatever you think of this book, you’ll be certain to want to talk about it.

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