By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

by-grand-central-station-i-sat-down-and-wept-by-elizabeth-smart

An orgasm in a caravan with a convector heater on full blast and a thousand rounds of toast popping. Nothing can adequately describe the frenzied claustrophobia in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. When I read it at age 22 in a damp smelly bedsit in north London in the clinch of obsessive love for a co-worker who’d chosen a brilliantly achieved woman over me, I understood the heart-stopping power of literature for the first time. This little book grabbed me by the hair and dragged.

She had been there in the 1930s, Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, and was able to explain it to me six decades later. Swallowing the earth with a married man, putting the whole untidy world into a nest, declaring that ‘love is strong as death’, especially the vetoed kind. I was flailing around with delusion in Wood Green, a harpy of relentlessness, addicted to hummus kebabs, drinking too much, longing for life with this man I’d met in a pet insurance company, screaming at him in red phone boxes, being mental. It was all a bit ugly and engrossing as often young love is.

George-Barker

Poet George Barker

The stifling descriptions of how Smart felt for poet-floozy George Barker after enticing him and his young wife to America – the length and latitude she was prepared to go to in pursuit of carnal hunger (she’d planned seven kids with him, though reality & economics restricted her to four) – her long-lived love story and how she wrote it became a strange anchor for me. I was relieved by its lunacy. In some ways it helped me move on. I entombed my man in London, moved back to Ireland, grew up a bit and learnt how to behave. Though the book, like sea lichen, left its tidemark.

I re-read it again recently and wanted to puke! A nauseating and brilliant ecology of desire and mental oblation. The reader is a peeper, an ogler, a watcher, through something mad, thrilling and rare. We witness Smart baiting her lover while sacrificing his martyr wife, the steamy affair that ensues across America, Canada and England, the ‘real’ trouble they get into because of the social mores of the time, the disgust her family experienced (Parent’s 11890440_10206884928495408_5758888108711341254_o (1)imaginations build frameworks out of their own hopes and regrets into which children seldom grow, but instead, contrary as trees, lean sideways out of the architecture, blown by a fatal wind they never envisaged) and her own mercenary journey through marvellous filthy love, horrible loneliness and eventual abandonment by a man who went on to have 15 kids with a bunch of women, while never managing to nab a full-time job. By today’s standards, he really was a Casanova shithead.

While the language and depth of feeling is still affectingly brilliant, it reads a little indulgent for our time. Nature, birds, prophecy, insects, shame, cheap hotels, Macbethian blood, betrayal, weather systems, crazed sex, all the things that suffocated her senses would peter out in a string of maniacal text messages today. Smart seems not very smart in truth, a posh girl hell bent on self annihilation and pissing off her parents, but her ability to sculpture language into terrifying and wonderful reflections marks her out as a unique and brilliant writer whose ‘whoring after oblivion’ with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism will leave you reeling in the trees. There should be a penance of a lot of pints after finishing this book. My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?

*****************************

*This piece by moi will be part of Colm Keegan’s We Are What We Read exhibition, taking place at the dlr LexIcon, Dún Laoghaire, from 28th August – 31st October 2015, featuring a range of writers talking about books that had an impact on them.

About junecaldwell

June's short story collection Room Little Darker is published by New Island Books in May 2017. She's a prizewinner of The Moth International Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted and highly commended for many others including: Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award, Sunday Business Post/Penguin short story prize, Lorian Hemingway (USA), RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year. In 2010 she received an Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) bursary for fiction. Her work has been showcased at the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in Nogarole Rocca / Verona (May 2012), Read For The World (June 2012) and Bloomnibus (June 2013) at the Irish Writers' Centre, Galway Pro Choice (Aug 2013), Over the Edge Galway (Dec 2013), Stinging Fly Spring Launch (March 2014), At The Edge, Cavan (May 2014), The Winding Stair Prizewinner's Reading (Sep 2014), One City One Book: DLR Lexicon Barrytown Trilogy reading (April 2015), Hodges Figgis Book Festival (Oct 2015), Bogman's Canon Fiction Disco (Nov 2015, April 2016), Doolin Writers' Weekend (March 2016), Five Lamps Arts Festival (Mar 2016), National Concert Hall: Kevin Barry Recital Room series (April 2016) and the Eastrogen Rising: A Rebel Cabaret. Her creative writing has been published in Woven Tale Press, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Literary Orphans and Popshot, as well as a non-fiction biography of a Trouble's moll with Gill and MacMillan in 2006. Her short story 'SOMAT' is published in The Long Gaze Back: The Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson/New Island. Journalism: The Gloss, The Guardian, The Observer, Sunday Times, Sunday Life, Sunday Tribune, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Independent, Ireland on Sunday, Irish Independent, as well as a number of women's magazines and trade journals.

Posted on July 10, 2015, in Art, Books, Erotica, History, Laments, Love, Novels and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I saw Elizabeth Smart and George Barker share the stage at the Edinburgh fest one year.Clearly he still meant a lot to her.

    Mary Russell

    Email: scribea1@hotmail.com
    Website: http://www.maryrussell.info
    Mobile Ireland: 00 353 860 800692
    Mobile UK: 00 44 07780 531517

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Wow Mary, that must’ve been something to seem them. he was her ‘big love’ all her life, but her suffering was so intense at the same time. It’s strange to reread a book after a long gap of time, but it’s still an amazing piece of work. Like Sylvia Plath, she comes across as more talented than her muse.

  2. Bogman's Cannon

    Reblogged this on The Bogman's Cannon.

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