Book Review: ‘By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept’ by Elizabeth smart

During times of crises, one might think that we would be reminded of the triviality of our small, personal problems, but I think that one of the many things that the current Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that our human responses aren’t always so rational.
Over the last two weeks, as the severity of the situation has made itself more and more apparent, I have observed myself alternating between fear and anxiety for the wider issues: a global recession, hundreds of thousands of deaths, what this will do to our human propensity for us- and them- distinctions; and then my own little worries: will my boyfriend still like me after potentially 3 months apart? What will I do if I get a toothache?

It seems that no matter how vast the problem, we (or at least I) still find it difficult to put our own concerns into perspective. What I try to bear in mind though, is that the big picture is made up of these tiny elements, interactions, worries. It is a pandemic precisely because we all will feel the effects of this disaster. Grand events are made up of millions of littler ones. And, of course, I remind myself that my problems are nothing compared to what hundreds of thousands, more likely millions, will have to go through as a result of this virus.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, an autobiographical account of the author’s affair with a married man (the poet George Barker, with whom she had four children), is a perfect study of how the events in our lives, when personally and emotionally significant, can become amplified to grandiose proportions. Comparable to, and even eclipsing, some of the twentieth century’s most horrific events.

The narrator is intelligent enough to know that the comparisons she makes are, in fact, incomparable, that millions of people being sent to gas chambers is not even on the same scale of suffering as one woman’s heartbreak; and yet, she seems to suggest a closer relation between the two. What the text seems to suggest, by weaving the personal and the historical together (reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s equally brutal poem, ‘Daddy’), is that one makes sense because of the other. These are grand tragedies precisely because those people going into the gas chambers are people’s lovers, husbands, wives, children. If it wasn’t for the love experienced by individuals and groups, what would those traumas, in fact, be breaking?

She also suggests that it is the minute, everyday pleasures and pains that justifies everything else. Since life is undeniably hard, and filled with trials and disappointments, we must not forget how to cherish what is most precious to us. Even, or especially when, it feels like everything else is falling apart.

This wonderful book does a vital job in reminding us to keep our perspective flexible, stay able to appreciate both the small and the significant, and to never lose sight of the small things that matter to us when we have them. It is a book about loss, and sadly, the only thing we seem to be increasingly certain of right now is that this virus will mean many of us will experience loss before it’s time. I hope her beautiful language might provide some comfort to those of us feeling claustrophobic and isolated right now, whether our losses are temporary or permanent.

‘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?
Our passion by the ice pond forced the sun into sight. It has rocked orphans to sleep and thickened the heart of the new-made cabinboy. Heathcliff’s look bored a hole through England which generations of heather on the wild moor never erased.
Give me my faith in the one fact, and I can cure cancer and gossip and war. Give me the fact, and then I would cut off my hands and give them to her to comfort her for an hour.
Injure me, betray me, but only make me sure of the love, for all day and all night, away from him and with him, everywhere and always, that is my gravity, and the apples (which ben ripe in my gardayne) fall only towards that.’ (100)