By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept

Here is another sentence tasting. This one is 4000 words long, but it is divided in ten parts.

I

Sentences do not pass through you like trains through a station. Ideas and words and strings of words come together in your mind, they have affairs, and they give birth to sentences through your tongue and your lips and your teeth and your fingertips.

Everything you hear is like something you’ve heard before. Every sentence you read reminds you of previous sentences and evokes feelings you had about those sentences. Sometimes the resemblance is weak and general, like a face in the crowd that is like other faces you’ve seen in other places. Sometimes the resemblance is strong and deliberate, calling forth all the memories you have of an old friend, or like someone you have not known but have long wanted to meet. Sometimes a sentence takes familiar bits and puts them together in a new way that is like someone you’ve never known before but suddenly feel like you have wanted to know all your life. And when you now meet, you are carried away, captured by the fame – no, you capture it and you carry it away. And make a new meaning.

And then life moves on. With or without you, it moves on. But you still are still pregnant with this sense. And you may dwell with it in palaces or in flophouses, on clean silk or on reeking cotton, or both by turns, but it is always yours, in paradise and in exile.

II

Have you ever read “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept”?

Have you ever read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept?

The sentence that became the title of the book is the first sentence of the tenth and last part of the book, on page 117 of 128 in my paperback copy.

When I heard the sentence on CBC radio, while driving in Edmonton, Alberta, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it was at once a sentence I had never heard or known of or suspected before and yet instantly familiar and captivating, like a face in a crowd you see and think, “Who is that? I must know that person.”

Perhaps it was like that the first time Elizabeth Smart read the poetry of George Barker. And decided, then and there, that she would meet him and marry him and bear his children.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

III

Elizabeth Smart, author of the 1945 book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, was born in Ottawa in 1913, into a rich family with a country home and good connections. In 1937, on Charing Cross Road in London, England, she walked into a bookshop and found a book of poems by George Barker.

Poems such as “Daedalus” filled her with that feeling. Barker’s words seem to be playing her heart strings:

Where once he trod
I cannot tread;
From the home he is gone from
I am prohibited:
We cannot be
While he is gone from being;
While he is not with being
I am as well miserably unloving;
Totally bereft I too am totally absent,
Appearing here, although
Bruisable and buriable seeming, am too bruised
In my dead
To buried.

She set to molding the wax-and-feather wings with which she would fly to meet this sun. Or perhaps with which he would fly to meet her.

She contrived for three years to meet him. She pretended to be a collector of manuscripts, aided by the healthy allowance she received from her parents. At last, in 1940, when she was living in an artists’ colony in Monterey, California, she flew him over from Japan, where he was in a sort of ignominious exile teaching university English, to join her.

His wife came with him.

“How can she walk through the streets,” Elizabeth wrote of George’s wife, Jessica, “so vulnerable, so unknowing, and not have people and dogs and perpetual calamity following her?”

George Barker soon began an affair with Elizabeth Smart. They attempted to flee into Arizona but were stopped and arrested: there was a law against crossing state lines for immoral purposes. Elizabeth became pregnant. She moved back to Canada. He tried to join her but was stopped at the border. She had the baby. They reunited, inconstantly but constantly. She moved to England. She had another child with him. And two more.

George never divorced his wife for Elizabeth. He divorced her, yes, ultimately, but not for Elizabeth. He had a total of 15 children with four women, and one more with another woman was aborted. He never entirely went out of Elizabeth’s life and never entirely stayed in it. He never stopped being a narcissistic bounder. (Page 70, the author’s little brother: “I’ve never met this guy, but he sounds to me like a cad.” Yes.)

Elizabeth never stopped loving him, admiring him, adoring him. Or at least the words that came from him, and him just as the source of them. Their son Christopher recalled, “He, jokingly, often said she was never in love with him anyway, but with the English language.”

IV

She wrote her famous thin book in England in the time after the birth of her first child and before the birth of her second. Its 1945 printing was only 2000 copies. Her mother blocked its release in Canada. (Page 72: “The very word Love offends with its nudity. It stopped being practical when the most expensive camel stuck in the needle’s eye.”)

She made her living writing advertising copy as well as much of the content for the magazine Queen. She was damn good at it; in her time, she was England’s highest-paid copywriter. (Page 120: “If you can smile now you might become a great success in the advertising business. Brave little woman . . . Quite a gal. Her saucy repartee conceals alluring tragedy. Once she could feel, she could weep. She too was human. But you see what can be done? Why, she’s making $15,000 a year.”)

And so she lived her life in disgrace, as a “fallen woman” – an unwed mother – and a fallen poet, reduced to writing ads and earning lucre the filthy way. She knew poets, held salons, helped with their literary magazines, and was altogether overlooked. She was handmaiden and satellite to the men who wrote poetry, and they drank her tea and her wine and her whisky and did not ask for her words.

You won’t have heard of most of her poet friends, unless you’re the sort of person who buys chapbooks, and maybe not even then. But they were famous among those people among whom they were famous.

In 1966, By Grand Central Station I Saw Down and Wept was re-released. And became an enormous sensation. At the same time, she was pushed out of Queen. She stopped writing for the money of it and moved to an English countryside retreat. And there she remained, except for a time in the early 1980s as a writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and a year in Toronto on a Canada Council grant. In 1986 she died in London of a heart attack, having lived a life never fully accepted, never at home anywhere, never getting all of what she wanted.

And by that, we who read her got what we hadn’t known we wanted from her.

V

Psalm 137 is a shockingly bitter bit of verse, and shockingly popular for one so bitter. We often think of psalms as happy or serene songs of praise: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But Psalm 137, which gave lyrics to Don McLean and Boney M and Godspell and God knows how many others, is an expression of the despair of a people who are forced to be far from their homeland and to pretend to be happy about it. Here is the King James rendition of it:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth,
saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

No matter how much you may enjoy the wistfulness of the beginning, or the devotion to the lost homeland of the middle part, it is nearly impossible for most people today to read the last line for the first time without thinking – or saying aloud – “Yikes!” But when Elizabeth Smart pulled on the memory string for the first line and a half, she was calling forth all of this psalm, or as much of it as any reader may remember.

The rivers of Babylon are the watering, life-giving streams of a country of exile, the enemy of the people of Israel, whose song this is. And Grand Central Station is where streams of life come together – trains and people – but it is exile for the narrator, who is not in her native Canada and is not with her desired beloved either. She is bearing his child, but his wife is her competition: when Elizabeth Smart was bearing her second child for him, his first wife, Jessica, was bearing her second and third (twins) for him… and he was in London drinking. She does not talk of wanting to dash the competition children against the rock; she is almost compassionate towards Jessica in the book, aside from trying to steal her husband. “Is there no other channel of my deliverance except by her martyrdom?” she asks the reader. But, reader, she martyred her.

VI

The usual way of writing this sentence would be “I sat down by Grand Central Station and wept” or “I sat down and wept by Grand Central Station.” But, for reasons of focus and poetry, the place has been displaced. The English language branches to the right: in the basic structure, the complements come after the head of a phrase. And “by Grand Central Station” is a prepositional phrase modifying “sat” (and probably “wept” too). But it has been moved left – raised, as linguists say. The location is now in exile from its natural spot, having been driven there by desire.

The desire, in this case, is to produce an effect. The effect is the Psalm citation, yes, but also to give it a bit of a poetic air (we do raise such phrases, as in “In my house we take off our shoes,” or – page 109 – “By the Pacific I wander like Dido,” but the longer the modifying phrase the more ostentatious the raising) – and to change the information structure.

It’s normal in English sentences to start with information that is established, or at least of lesser emphasis, and then follow with the information that is new or more important. Consider: “I saw it on Mulberry Street.” “On Mulberry Street I saw it.” Do you see it? So when she starts part 10 with “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept,” it’s like in a movie where we start with the establishing shot – we learn first that she is in New York City, and in specific at the place where all the people come and go (it was the early 1940s; Grand Central really was the number one point of arrival and departure for New York City) – and then we find out that she is not hailing a cab, or buying a hot dog, or doing anything that involves transit and progress; instead, the motion stops and the scene cuts to a close-up as she sits down and weeps.

It is true that the structure of the sentence in the famous English version is just following the source. In Latin, it’s “Super flumina Babylonis illic sedimus et flevimus”; in Hebrew (which I won’t paste in here due to character set issues), it likewise starts with the setting before getting to the action. That’s how the whole Bible starts: “In the beginning, God created” – the Hebrew name for the first book of the Bible, “Bereshith,” means ‘In the beginning’. We may, grammatically, in the underlying structure, treat the setting as modifying the action, but here, the setting is first, and then we zoom in on the action.

Not everyone does. There are many English translations of the Bible, and while most of them put the place first, the Living Bible says “Weeping, we sat beside the rivers of Babylon thinking of Jerusalem,” and the New Life Version says “We sat down and cried by the rivers of Babylon when we remembered Zion.” But by not moving the modifier, they move the text farther away from its origins.

Elizabeth Smart was far away from her origins when she sat down by Grand Central Station. It was a station for her, and perhaps grand, but it was at a periphery of her life. She balanced her centrifugal peregrinations with a centripetal drawing of allusions, classical and Biblical. In the abortive escape to Arizona, every police question is counterpoised with a quote from the Song of Solomon: “What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.” “When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.)” And so, “The inspector put it all down with six carbon copies. What a cad, he said, and the girl’s a religious maniac.” Driving her back to California, her landlord chides her for talking too much; to her protestation “But they brought in the nature of Truth—” he replies as Pilate, “What is truth?”

VII

What are these words in the sentence, by the way? “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept:” nine words altogether – and, in the text, not a period but a colon at the end, staring forward expectantly. Six of the words are one-syllable words of ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage. The other three, the three making the name of that utterly American location, are from Latin via French, and two are two syllables each and one is grand.

Not great, not big, not huge. Grand. If you’re in Ireland, grand is a common enough word: “Sure, that’s grand.” But in American and Canadian English, this word has a greater glamour and grandiosity to it. We could say big, or large, or huge, or great. But only grand has grandeur. And like large and huge, and unlike big and great, it comes from French, and from Latin before that. Romans conquered France and imposed their language on the Celtic natives; Germans (well, Angles and Saxons) conquered England and imposed their language on the Celtic natives; Scandinavians conquered part of England and added some of their language to the mix; other Scandinavians came to northern France and acquired the language there descended from Latin; those French Normans conquered England and tried to impose their language, which in the end got added to the mix. All of English is from elsewhere, and the native Celtic words became strangers in their own land. Sure, that’s grand.

Central is also from French, from Latin, which took it from Greek κέντρον, ‘sharp point’. The Greek word could mean a spike, or a spur, or an instrument of torture, or the centre of a circle, or a penis. Or, I suppose, all of them at once.

Station is also from French, from Latin statio, which is from Latin sto, meaning ‘I stand’ or ‘I stay’ or ‘I remain’. But Elizabeth Smart did not stand; she sat. She was stationary, but she did not stay or remain; all that remains of her station there is now on stationery, the paper of the book you hold in your hand.

I should point out that Grand Central Station is not Grand Central Station. It is Grand Central Terminal. The tracks don’t pass through it. They end there. The trains stop, unload, load, and go back the way they came. But it is still a place people pass through on the way from one place to another. It is a station like the eighth station of the cross, which recalls the moment where Jesus finds women of Jerusalem weeping, comforts them, and then continues on to his appointed death.

One of the words “Grand Central Station” has displaced from the Biblical original is also from French and Latin, by the way: rivers. Rivers are the railways of the natural world, but river comes from a name for what the water flows past: a word for a river bank, ripa, which comes from an ancient root meaning ‘steep slope’, which in turn comes from another meaning ‘tear down’. (Page 125: “Tomorrow at ten I shall take a train. All trains lead me to rivers that beckon and wink. Through the day, or through the twilight, I rush past rivers to the river. One river waits. One is the one, and knows how I shall fall into the water with a thud.”)

But all the other words in this sentence – by, I, sat, down, and, wept – are words that have been in English since before it was English. Which means that they, too, are words from the North German invaders. They have all changed form over the centuries; the Old English equivalents are bi, ic, sæt, dun, ond (but also sometimes and), weop (or, really, ƿeop, but we can’t wynn today). But they all mean the same thing as they did then. They are short, they are clear, they are sharp, they are to the point.

VIII

“By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept” is a sentence written by a 33-year-old about a 27-year-old who in the book declares herself to be a 23-year-old. When I was all those ages, this book spoke to me; my heart and hair reeked of the desire burning in its pages like clothes reeking of cigarette smoke. My copy has pencil squiggles in the margin every so often.

Do you want to know the name of your future lover? Take a blank slip of paper and focus the sun on it through a magnifying glass. The holy beams will write a name, and the paper will ignite with the passion of it before you can read it. Such is the power of the focus.

Of the lack of perspective.

Elizabeth Smart was my proxy Icarus flying to the sun of self-immolation in love, and she sang the song of my own inability to do the same. “It is not the certainties which love cannot surmount, but the doubts the terrible doubts that make Vesuvius in my stomach. Doubt brings enough clues for me to finish the conundrum into damnation for myself.” Thirty years ago, I put a pencil squiggle in the margin next to that.

Thirty years later, I look back at the frozen flames. Two paragraphs later, Elizabeth writes, “O, I understand too well how we are all Lot’s wife, looking back, under our heroic loving faces. But is nothing irrefutable? Is no fact impregnable? Is there no once-in-a-billion years’ bull’s-eye worth even the slaughter of decisive action?” Last night, reading it again, I put a sticky tab next to that.

I am over 50 now, and my calm long view is the object of Elizabeth Smart’s derision: “the wisdom old people get because they cannot remember the passion. . . . Is it that they forget or that there is truly compensation in a long-off view?” But I have not forgotten. I just have so many lasting embers that I am not twisting in one flame like a moth or a heretic. I am not in exile from the land of youth; I have, rather, gone deeper into the country of life, away from the fraught borderlands. Or I am floating down the middle of the river, seeing the banks pass at a distance, not knowing what ocean or waterfall awaits.

“O the fingers of the cold, the little creeping fingers of dissuasion,” Elizabeth wrote. More than half my life ago, I put a squiggle next to it in the margin. But I was not dissuaded, no more than she was. I just stopped loving loss and displacement.

IX

When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was re-released, Brigid Brophy wrote a foreword, which has become canonical with the book. In my copy, its nine pages are numbered in the same sequence as Elizabeth Smart’s hundred-twelve (counting the section title pages). Elizabeth lauds her lover from orbit, like a small sun revolving around a dark planet; Brigid orbits Elizabeth’s shining satellite and lauds it in turn. Page 11:

For a reason I do not know (it may be too fundamental to be knowable), the human mind delights less in the exact evocation of one image, however beautiful, than in the lightning-flash (very like that of wit) which compares or actually fuses and assimilates two images, in the way that the very title of Elizabeth Smart’s book assimilates Grand Central Station to the rivers of Babylon. . . . I am fairly sure that when we say a book has “depth” or “universality” we mean that the author has implied perspectives viewed down which even the book’s most seemingly single and particularised images, even its characters, are metaphors of something beyond themselves.

Of course every word summons other times you have that word, and other words you have heard it with, and if it does it well, for a second it flashes a mask, and you are not sure whether what you are reading now is wearing the mask of what you read then, or vice versa. Is it pulled by their gravity, or are they pulled by its? Both, of course, but which is stronger? This book “is couched in the tone of exile,” as Brigid Brophy says, and it is all about wandering and displacement and being on the periphery when being in the centre. But who pulled whom? Who wrote the letters, who paid for the plane ticket, who bore the children, who wrote the book?

Daedalus made wings of feathers and wax, and Icarus wore them and flew too close to the sun and fell. But who is Daedalus, who is Icarus, who is the sun? Or has Elizabeth taken George’s wax and burned it in candles, and taken his feathers and written her book with them?

Does it have to be just one thing?

X

And it ends, but it doesn’t. It is not terminal; it is a station.

The book ends with a question mark: “My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?” She is not with her beloved, and we do not know the future, but she will forever carry him with her. The question pulls forward, calls for an answer, is not answered.

The sentence that gives the title of the book ends with a colon: “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept:” Two dots, separate but together, looking in expectation. And then a new paragraph follows, with protestations.

The title of the book, being a title, just stops at its last word; it brings no punctuation: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

And from that, from being a reference, it becomes something to be referred to. And so it continues. Your turn now.

One response to “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept

  1. and here, enjoy the phrase in the reggae version:

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