I am not sure if the emotional intensity of Elizabeth Smart's 'By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept' was spoiled by reading it three pages at a time with my breakfast. This is definitely poetry, for all that it appears to have chapters and some minor narrative progress. The book is an internal monologue charting the highs and lows of the early years of her love affair with poet George Barker. It seems the most surreal of ideas to fall in love with someone's writing and for that to become a real tangible attachment to the person. We don't learn anything about George from the book, but his Wikipedia page says he had fifteen children with an unmentioned number of women, including Elizabeth and his two wives, and the two descriptive words 'catholic' and 'bohemian' seems somewhat contradictory. But the book is not about him, it is about love itself, and the power it has over those possessed by it. Prepare for a small cascade of quotations.
Her thoughts on their first few days together:
"So we drive along the Californian coast singing together, and I entirely renounce him for only her peace of mind. The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives.
Who do I not jump off this cliff where I lie sickened by the moon? I know these days are offering me only murder for my future. It is not just the creeping fingers of the cold that dissuade me from action, and allow me to accept the hypocritical hope that there may be some solution. Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host. So it is tomorrow's breakfast rather than the future's blood that dictates fatal forbearance. Nature, perpetual whore, distracts with the immediate. Shifty-eyed with this fallacy, I plough back to my bed, up through the tickling grass." (p.18)
After the first time they make love:
"Gently the wood sorrel and the dove explained the confirmation and guided my return. When I came out of the woods onto the hill, I had pine needles in my hair for a bridalwreath, and the sea and the sky and the gold hills smiled benignly. Jupiter has been with Leda, I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars." (p.25)
Contemplating the feelings of Barker's wife Jessica:
"But the gentle flowers, able to die unceremoniously, remind me of her grief whose tears drown all ghosts, and though I swing in torture from the windiest hill, more angels weep for her whose devastated love runs into all the oceans of the world.
What did she cherish as her symbol, and how did she protect herself from panic when her ship pursued the month's-old storm, and she fought the cancer which was her knowing grief for her lost child? I have broken her heart like a robin's egg. Its wreck reaches her finite horizon." (p.35)
When they are arrested (for crossing the state line for immoral purposes):
"But you care about justice, inspector, or you wouldn't be where you are?
I don't make the laws, he said, it isn't up to me, I have no authority. He smiled, but he was afraid of his smile and went away with a thin-lipped man and read the letters we had written.
They're only literary letters, I said, about things we both liked.
But you're a Communist? he said.
But you've taken part in Communist activities?
You have friends who are Communists?
Not more than other sorts.
He repented his smile and was severe in result. The thin-lipped man was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire. He sneaked through the streets at dusk to warn the hotel.
The two policemen who had arrested us and brought us over the deserts together on a bench, like minor schoolboys, washed and brushed and well-behaved, to return to their wives and calm households and their suppers, while we hurtled through confusion into tragedy because of their caprice on the Arizona border." (p.50-1)
On the disapproval of her mother:
"Then my mother's clutch held me every way, with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism, and made me long for my annihilation. Can even Freud explain the terror of that clutch, the inescapability of its greed for authority, and why it was stronger than the North East wind, memory, reason, or Pre-Cambrian rock?" (p.66)
On being apart:
"Philosophy, like lichens, takes centuries to grow and is always ignored in the Book of Instructions. If you can't Take It, Get Out.
I can't take it, so I lie on the hotel bed dissolving into chemicals whose adventure will pursue time to her extinguishment, without the slightest influence from these few years when I held them together in human passion." (p.84)
Weeping at Grand Central Station:
"But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to shreds, seeking escape on every impossible side? The senses deliver the unbearable into sleep, and it ceases, except that it appears gruesomely at the edges of my dreams, making ghastly signals which wear away peace, but which I cannot understand.
The pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end: it had operate grandeur. It lit up Grand Central Station like a Judgement Day. It was more iron-muscled than Samson in his moment of revelation. It might have shown me all Dante's dream. But there was no way to endure." (p.103-4)
It is like a greek tragedy, such melodrama, I found myself lurching between sympathising and wanting to tell her to pull herself together. If she was your best friend you would warn her that she was wasting her life on him. I loved the fact that she relishes every moment of what she is experiencing, the good and the bad, almost basking in the heat of the emotions; as she says in the quote above, she does not want it to end, like exquisite misery. I think I was more taken with the miserable passages than the besotted ones, maybe I'm just old and cynical now. As I said you get nothing about George, so I was left to wonder what it was that she loved about him, the book does not even tell you that, it is as if the love is all inside her head and has little to do with the human being he is. I think it would be better read in one sitting, and at just over 100 pages it would only be an afternoon. This book was written during the war and was relative unknown for many years. She went back to creative writing much later in her life after rising her children alone, she sounds like a fascinating woman and certainly someone to read more of.