Life Writing

Reflection: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

I’ve been reading a lot of florid fiction of late. There was Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot last week, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and Beverley Farmer’s Alone. These books have allowed me to sit with some fairly deep and conflicting emotions that I’ve had to process over the last twelve months, feelings related to my position as a Dedicated Spinster, feelings related to the likelihood that I won’t be a mother (old, single, precarious employment/no mat leave) and the reality that even if I do, my father, who is very unwell, won’t ever meet any of my children (beyond the furbaby, Dr Felix). This is, like, a lot. And I often find that the clean, fresh, pared back language that is favoured in contemporary writing doesn’t do justice to the messiness of these deep, but reasonable, feelings. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept  was a glorious means of understanding the fury, focus and frailty that arises when we see the future we had imagined thwarted.

I’ll be straight up, the romantic politics of BGCSISDAW horrify me. There is nothing I am more terrified of than being in another person’s thrall like that. But the reason for that is because I have been, and the book mirrored my own obsessive thought patterns and proclivities towards obsession (I try to channel this into “professional focus” but it’s the same shit). Its poetry is exquisite: the ruptured language, the invocation of classical and mythological imagery to frame and justify the narrator’s choices, even the use of rhythm in constructing sentences is lyrical. The book was published in 1945, and details the narrator’s experiences with her married lover from 1940 to 45. World War II scaffolds the story, but is not central to it: the tumultuous world is merely a by-line to the narrator’s own internal chaos as she walks headfirst and gloriously shameless into an illicit affair.

Smart’s writing draws the reader in and lulls them into a sense of beauty, forgiving the narrator’s ethical instability. I write “narrator” and the book is usually kept in the “Literature” or “Fiction” aisle at the bookstore, but this is really an example of confessional poetic prose. In many ways, I think Smart a stepping stone between Modernist stream of consciousness writing found in Mrs Dalloway and the work of confessional poets such as Sexton and Plath. Her turn of phrase is evocative while her use of meter is balanced.

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 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.

Smart, 2015, 27-28.

I think that, like Written on the Body and The Passion, this is one of those books I will read over and again. I feel like I slid through it, like I’ll discover something new with every reading. The story sits in my periphery, a shadow that I’m not quite sure I’ve read, and like a face in a dream I know that I remember the story, but I find its features, its mouth and eyes are beyond my recollection, even as I remember the fall of lashes on cheek, or the taste of its lips.

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