By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept – Elizabeth Smart
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept is beautiful in its way. Semi-autobiographically telling the story of the author’s romantic engagements with a married man, the book is one of the best known and well-respected books in the prose-poetry genre. The back cover features positive reviews from such luminaries as the London Review of Books, Beryl Bainbridge and Michael Ondaatje. As a newcomer to the genre, I was taken in by the lyrical depth of the prose.
The problem was that I found myself getting lost in the words, unable to keep track of what they were telling me. The author biography at the front of the book basically told me the plot, and without it, I probably would have had no clue what was going on in terms of plot. There were brief glimpses into the evolution of the narrator’s relationship with the object of her affections, but they often got lost among the metaphors and imagery, especially if you’re not paying close attention.
Take, for example this passage referring to the consummation of their relationship, (which I should point out, is one of the least oblique parts of the book):
“Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain. Then he kissed me and went down to his cottage.
Absolve me, I prayed, up through the cathedral redwoods, and forgive me if this is sin. But the new moss caressed me and the water over my feet and the ferns approved me with endearments: My darling, my darling, lie down with us now for you are also the earth whom nothing but love can sow.
And I lay down on the redwood needles and seemed to flow down the canyon with the thunder and confusion of the stream, in a happiness which, like birth, can afford to ignore the blood and tearing. For nature has no time for mourning, absorbed by the turning world, and will, no matter what devastation attacks her, fulfill in underground ritual, all her proper prophecy.
Gently the woodsorrel 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, and I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars. All legend will be born, but who will escape alive?”
It might be clear enough at the beginning of this passage what is going on, but by the time you get to the end and the plot begins to move on again, I, at least, found that it was difficult keeping track of everything. Another example is a somewhat abortive trip by the narrator and her amour to Arizona, where they get arrested for reasons that are not entirely clear. It was interesting to read, but I was so lost in the prose that I didn’t know why they were even going to Arizona, let alone getting arrested for it.
The verbosity however is possibly what makes the novel work. If the plot were just written as a traditional work of literature, despite it’s being autobiographical, it would be easy to dismiss it as a little tawdry and over emotional. When you pile on this much poetic detail onto even the basest of actions, such as adultery in the above passage, then it becomes beautiful in a way that very few novelists would be able to dream of.
To say I enjoyed By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, would perhaps be an exaggeration, but I definitely feel that if I had gone my whole life without reading it, I would have missed out on a valuable literary experience. I imagine that to get the full effect of the prose, to really appreciate the imagery and the emotion contained within it, the story would be better when read aloud, though unfortunately the only audiobook production at the moment seems to be out of print.