Elizabeth Smart’s Impassioned Journey

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I wrote about one of my all-time favorite books: BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT, Elizabeth Smart’s prose poem published in 1945. It is vivid and stirring and miraculously captures what it is like to be in the throes of passion and in the thick of a love affair, even one as complicated and troubling as the one Smart found herself in with fellow poet George Barker, father of her four children, never her husband, and frankly, always kind of an asshole.

But BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION is Exhibit A for the uncomfortable nexus point between art and life, when a writer’s behavior and actions aren’t necessarily palatable for the reader. People are absolutely right to equate Smart’s behavior with respect to Barker – essentially orchestrating his and his wife’s visit to California under false pretenses, and then instigating the long-running affair based more on words on the page than real-life bearing – with stalking; uncharitable interpretations of their union would conclude they deserved each other.

And yet, BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION is all about those contradictions. It interweaves the mundane and the grandiose, the blase attitude about adultery with flashes of empathy for the wronged wife, the biblical allusions with contemporary concerns about immigration and housework. And as much as Smart’s prose poem depended on the complicated cauldron of events swirling around her at the time, it isn’t weighed down by them. In the end, it’s about emotion; the thrill of falling, the torture of longing, the sense of giving, unconditionally, love that is greater than yourself. That, above all, is why it endures.

The book spoke and continues to speak to me for a number of reasons, some of them a bit spooky. Smart was born and raised in Ottawa, my hometown; I first read BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION in the summer of 2003, while in London, specifically at a friend’s place on a weekend stay, with little to read. It was short. The title caught my eye. The backstory was intriguing. And oh, did it move me, even as my 24-year-old self recognized the impracticality of such feelings while also reveling in them, just a little.

Much to my relief, the book held up and then some on this most recent read, and I hope many more people seek out a copy. So what’s the spooky part, then? Well, consider Smart’s accidental namesake, born a year after her 1986 death. They even resemble each other, a little. I suppose it makes a weird sort of sense that the name would be revived again, in circumstances awful and redemptive, and I wonder if the current Elizabeth, now 23, has read the work of the previous one – and what the first Ms. Smart would have made of the strange coincidence.

Further reading: Ingrid Norton’s essay on BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION in the October 2010 issue of Open Letters Monthly.