Necessary Secrets, by Elizabeth Smart

This is the first of two volumes of her journals, from 1933-1941, up to the point where she has written By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept the impressionistic novel/memoir for which she is most known. More a series of prose poems than a narrative, By Grand Central Station takes the reader inside the tumult of her affair with George Barker. She fell in love with him through reading his poetry, not realising at first that he was married. As the book opens, she is waiting to meet Barker and his wife for the first time, having sent them money to come to the U.S.

I first read By Grand Central Station in the late 1970s when I was a single mother, struggling to raise my children with no child support, and have to confess I was impatient with all the emotional drama. Look out, I remember thinking, or you’re going to end up raising kids on your own. In fact, that is exactly what happened to Smart. She went on to have four children with Barker, as he alternated his time between her and his wife.

I enjoyed it more this time around, caught up in the lush prose, the images tumbling over each other. I liked the humor that punctured her swollen prose, like the title with its reference to biblical grief twisted into—for me—an image of a bag lady huddling in a corner of that lobby in New York. She grounds her fanciful passages with the details of daily life: meals, swimming pools, rattlesnakes and spiders.

I kept going back trying to analyse how she strung the images together, how she structured the book, how she achieved her effects. But every time I ended up enthralled again and just reading, immersed in the flow. By reading Necessary Secrets at the same time, though, I could see how she used her journals in writing the book.

Smart kept several journals concurrently. Sometimes separately, sometimes jumbled together, she recorded her daily activities, lists of books she had read or wanted to read, quotations, conversations with herself, images to remember. Writers keep journals for a variety of reasons. Some, like me, need to write things out in order to understand them, in order to think them through. Others use their journals as workshop, i.e., a place for writing exercises. Some use them as a catch-all for ideas and images that may be useful someday. Others, like Smart, simply need to record things and then later go back and troll through them for input to their writing. (I’m grateful to Kathleen Flenniken for sending me a compilation of responses to her question as to why poets keep notebooks).

There are great chunks of her notebooks in By Grand Central Station and I enjoyed seeing how she blended them in and filled them out. Writers are predators, for sure, ready to steal anything from our lives to enhance the writing. The other interesting thing about Necessary Secrets was seeing her style develop over the years, enabling me to better appreciate the full-bore gush of it in By Grand Central Station with its unrepentant emotions and its comedic tragedy.

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