reviewed by Amy Britton

1943-1945 was clearly a vintage period for that unusual form, poetic prose. In her introduction to the Panther edition of the text, Brigid Brophy says that “if poetic prose is the genre which can shew the fewest masterpieces, it is probably also the genre which can shew the longest list of truly and abysmally bad books.” So, what are these few “masterpieces”? Brophy cites Genet as being “the other supreme prose-poet of our age.” Genet certainly is, along with Smart, a magnificent prose-poet, and there are comparisons to be made between the two which do not go unnoticed by Brophy. Both toy with gender and sexuality, in similar language (Brophy citing the narrators desire to appeal to her bisexual lover by wishing to “turn into a printshop boy with armpits like chalices.”)

But to merely draw comparisons between Genet and Smart would be a mistake – “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept” is in many ways a strikingly original piece of writing. There have been many novels in which the characters encounter the restraints of morality, but few in which the absurdity of this morality and these apparent restraints are so severely and yet so subtly mocked. The police interrogation is sublimely sliced with lines from The Song of Songs; these lines from the Bible cut and pasted, beautifully mutilated into this “immoral” escapade. Infidelity is not apologized for – Smart seems to adopt the Wildean view that the artist can have no ethical sympathies. There is a mocking of moral boundaries even in her choice of blunt vernacular (another Genet-like tactic, with his upfront descriptions of masturbation and passing wind) – in particular, her use of the word “cunt”, which now appears glib but coming from a woman in 1945 would have come as a great surprise, even shock.

This rejection of morality transcends the reader’s expectations of a novel with a title which implies mere traditional, feminine vulnerability. And yet Brophy points out that it does have “the rhythm of a throb. The entire book is a wound.” Through a kind of raw Dionysian pleasure which strips the narrator bare, Smart creates a whole new kind of vulnerability.

Amy Britton