God in Grand Central Station
by Sally Read
It’s seventy years this year since the publication of Elizabeth Smart’s searing prose-poem, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Ninety-five pages of passion, anguish and pain, the book describes Smart’s own intense love-affair with the poet George Barker. She fell in love with him solely through reading his poems; she then flew him (and his wife) over to the United States where their relationship was consummated. Smart went on to bear Barker four children. He did not leave his wife, though that particular marriage did not last. He would marry again, and fathered fifteen children in total.
The effect of reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is best compared to witnessing a brilliant but excruciating rant by someone whose wrists are bleeding into their martini. It tugs at you; you cannot look away. It speaks to the unfathomable dimensions of the heart and soul. And it leaves a bad taste in the mouth to witness a woman so absolutely undone by a man. Even as a young woman I flinched reading it—but I admired her hugely, as a poet and a lover who could feel and love as much as me. In the book she is excoriated, hollowed by grief—and it sings through her like a siren song, the wail of cursing harpies, the unbearable, inconsolable rise of violins.
As a young woman with a heart that big and easily broken, the title was strangely evocative and comforting. But, as a cradle-atheist, my knowledge of the Bible was practically zero. If any literary allusion sprang to mind, sadly it was Boney M’s By the Rivers of Babylon.
But Smart’s book is, course, all allusion. The poetic prose is saturated with allusions and straightforward quotes from scripture—mostly the Psalms and Song of Songs. There are other pre-Christian references too, from Greek mythology for example, but the raw passion that threatens to destroy her very existence-- or define and save her-- is resolutely biblical in tone. She is the lover of Song of Songs who uses metaphor for every bodily part:
I am over-run, jungled in my bed, I am infested with a menagerie of desires: my heart is eaten by a dove, a cat scrambles in the cave of my sex, hounds in my head obey a whipmaster who cries nothing but havoc…
She is the invoker of God at the start of the psalms of lamentation:
God, come down out of the Eucalyptus tree….
But, finding no religious comfort, she is utterly damned: ..for now Jesus Christ walks the waters of another planet, bleeding only history from his old wounds.
Poor woman, poor prose, poor green me as I read it all those years ago. For she does a daring and terrible thing, this lover—she takes the metaphor and poetry God has given us to describe his relationship with mankind and wrests it out of his hands in an attempt to fill the void of her own despair. The girl in Song of Songs who combs the broadways is searching for God. The Church is his bride. When we find him, God is the lover who fulfills all. God gives us this metaphor—we are his lovers-- but the great mistake and the symptom of our tragic flaw, is to take that metaphor back and say, “Our lovers are like God”. We will love them that hard, we will expect them to fill our void, we will worship them, we cannot live without them.
I am possessed by love and have no options Smart writes. It’s a story as old as man—but we moderns have enshrined it with rights, and regard our passions as an almost-always blameless means of being fully human. Take a look at that phase again: I have no options. And people say religion is tyrannical. She is right of course: without God, without grace, we have no freedom. We are thrown to the lions of our libido and devoured by the jackals of despair. Many of us end up endlessly seeking the perfection of that human lover who treads like Christ, who loves (we wish), like Christ. We sacrifice ourselves to him thinking: in human love I will find my home; in human love my all-consuming passion will be fed; I will know who I AM; I will find the flame to burn the boredom of the days, the ennui; I will forever remind myself of the flame I have within me. But the fire dies down. The lover goes back to his wife. The second husband does not cure us (necessarily).Nausea, sleeplessness, another dry martini. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
I still feel a kinship with Smart. As an atheist whose heart was offered up and badly kicked around, I know those illimitable horizons of feeling. It took a lot to learn that those needs are only filled by God. Only he is big enough to fill us forever and not hurt us. And it is the Psalms, of course, that show us this: our homesickness, our affliction, our insatiable longing—all those things that seem so impossible, are revealed to us as our dependence on God’s love.
Not everyone is as painfully passionate, nor as self-destructive, as Smart seems to have been. Yet, in the torturous ways in which we seek comfort as humans it’s obvious we’ve lost sight of what our existential hunger is for. Women and poets like Smart are rare. But the tendency to discount grace, to think human love alone will save us, is not.