Rating: 4 stars
I bought this recently after looking for poems set in Grand Central Station. It came up as a prose poem and its subject matter intrigued me.
This, from Yann Martel’s foreword, encapsulates the book:
This is a book about one creature’s obdurate desire to love and be loved, no matter what. Smart was lucid, resilient, hardworking, and responsible in her love-madness.
Elizabeth Smart was in London and picked up a book of George Barker’s poems. She fell in love with his words, so the story goes, but more than that. She decided she was in love with him and needed to meet him. Smart felt awakened by Barker’s poems. It took her three years to engineer a meeting with him. Her memoir of their love, a mix of long form poetry and sanguine reflection, begins with that meeting.
I was expecting gushing romance, a whirlwind of passion, something that would wrench my heart and take my breath away. Instead I found a still small voice of calm. Smart knew how she felt, inexplicable as it was (when has love ever been explicable?), but also knew the damage it could wreak to the innocent players in her romantic tale. She is matter of fact in describing her frustration at not being able to consummate her relationship with Barker straight away. She is cautious about starting anything as Barker’s wife is too oblivious (I wonder about that). She describes the ache of longing thus:
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 shipmaster who cries nothing but havoc as the hours test my endurance with an accumulation of tortures. Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?
Eventually, the moment comes, beside a waterfall. Smart is unlocked, alive to Barker in ways she finds hard to control. They have to find reasons to be together, so that they can be together in full sight. Smart is aware throughout that she has more invested in this love affair. Barker takes what’s offered. She says of him:
The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night, and no conception of the price of love.
As the relationship progresses, Smart keeps the details to herself, sharing only her feelings and the consequences. Water and liquidity is a major theme. The water of love floods everything, she dissolves into water and floats away, when Barker comes to visit Smart turns to liquid so that she can flood into him.
Touch is also important, a thing to be anticipated, a thing to be hidden beneath tables or stolen as their two bodies pass:
And merely his hand under those shabby tables, or guiding me across the stubble of the fields, makes my happiness as inexhaustible as the ocean, and as warm and comfortable as the womb.
When their love is discovered, they are arrested. Adultery in 1930s America was illegal. Smart sings The Song of Songs to herself while being interrogated and questions her questioners about what they think love is:
What do you live for then?
Two of them reply:
We’re family men, they said, We don’t go so much for love.
Smart questions them further:
But what is important in life, what is it for?
After the arrest, Smart returns to Canada and suffers the approbation of her parents. Throughout, she is thinking about how she and Barker can be together, where they will go, how to be alone. She considers herself dead, a corpse, without Barker. Love is everything, the reason to be alive:
So I say now, for the record of my own self, and to remember when I may be other than I am now: in spite of everything so strong in discussion, so rampant in disapproval, I saw then that there was nothing else anywhere but this one thing: that neither nunneries nor Pacific Islands nor jungles nor all the jazz of America nor the frenzy of warzones could hide any corner which housed an ounce of consolation if this failed. In all states of being, in all worlds, this is all there is.
Everyone around her accepts a settled state of love, convenient, safe, dispassionate. Passionate love that consumes and maddens is too dangerous, too unsettling.
Smart understands her lover well. Part Six of the book contains a wonderful love letter full of challenge and pragmatism. He is her entire goal. She belongs to him:
Only remember: I am not the ease, but the end.
I am not to blind you, but to find you.
What you think is the sirens singing to lure you to your doom is only the voice of the inevitable, welcoming you after so long a wait. I was made only for you.
Sometimes you know this about a person. If you’re lucky, they know it too and take that step to have everything that love can bring. More often, they don’t. They’re conventional, playing safe, unwilling to enter the flood waters and be swept away. I have been on both sides of that, been the cautious one who threw away something through fear, and the impassioned one convinced that love was everything faced by someone risk averse. It’s a hard thing to negotiate. Unbridled passion burns out. It isn’t solid enough to build a life on. Convenient, safe, dispassionate compromise is a sounder foundation. We all do it, and we are all a little diminished by it.
I wish I had Smart’s conviction. I wish I believed it was acceptable to be crazy in love. The brilliant spark that ignites the passion, the first flush of loving, the anticipation, the desire, the knowing and the being known. All of that is intoxicating. Isnt it? As can be the fighting, the insanity, the possessiveness, the jealousy. The living, breathing, heart thumping madness of love. Smart documents her own descent into insanity and jealousy when she and Barker are forced apart. She’s searingly honest about feeling abandoned by Barker:
He has martyred me, but for no cause, nor has he any idea of the size and consequence of my wounds. Perhaps he will never know, for to say, You killed me daily and O most especially nightly, would imply blame. I do not blame, nor even say, You might have done this or this rather than that.
She also hopes for restoration to his love:
But he may, O at one glance, restore me and flood me with so much new love that every scar will have a satin covering and be new glitter to attack his heart.
I felt sorry for Smart at this point. Carried by her certitude, she had pursued Barker and won his attention. She believed it to be a grand passion, a mutual love, but it seems to me that Barker was one of those men who love with detachment and therefore love repeatedly and simultaneously. Smart starts off believing she can live with that, with only having a share in his love, if he only reciprocates her intense passion. Part of me wonders whether she was being used, in making herself so available through her determination to love and be loved. Part of me wondered also whether she enjoyed being used, because it made her passion more tragic. She knows that her love is too intense. She knows that he has other lovers as well as a wife. Still she allows herself to fall and to feel so deeply that, when feeling is taken away by him, she is dead.
She couldn’t have acted any differently, she says.
I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world.
Convenient, safe, dispassionate compromise never gives you that.
Smart ends the book in New York, trying to force a denouement with Barker. I ran away to New York once, for a long weekend with a friend who lives there. I was running from my grand passion, the one who wouldn’t step into the flood with me but who also wouldn’t let me wash away in the torrent of loving him too hard. I went to New York to extract him from my head. I slept with someone there. In his own words, he had a dick the size of a light switch, but he distracted me none the less. That was the point when I changed and became one who is “placated by the mechanical motions of existence.”
Deep down, though, I still long for a passion that is all consuming and inevitable. Life has to be about something.
As I read, I was struck by the thought that a romance such as the one Smart engineered, and how, wouldn’t be possible today. We are all so connected through social media that as well as the chase being less difficult, resisting being chased is also less difficult. We over share and lose our allure. We are too public, too knowable, too mundane. We think we are unique and intoxicating but, as Smart says in her sorrow, we press our feet into the service of sedative monotony.
But then again, my grand passion 10 years ago was born of a chance encounter online, so who knows?
(For the record: I wasn’t looking. He found me and pursued me until I fell in love and scared him with the challenge of my passion for him. I don’t have Smart’s skills in persistence and persuasion to ever secure a passion of my own. That’s why I am a settler.)
Smart’s book is wonderful. If you have even a gramme of passion in you, read it and ride the floodwaters with her.