The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, by Elizabeth Smart

I liked this later book much better than By Grand Central Station if only because its view of the world is much closer to mine. The prose is still poetic and cut up into short sections, but together they make up a mosaic that—for me, at least—was much more intelligible and satisfying than the earlier book.

I read it in conjunction with On the Side of the Angels the second volume of her journals and, as before, found much that is lifted from her journals and woven into the book. In one entry, too, she talks about organizing Rogues and why she put the pieces in the order she did; I confess that this helped me better appreciate the book’s structure.

Rogues starts out in post-Blitz London, a bleak environment where people must count over their losses. And, indeed, this book is about loss: about growing old, trying to write in the face of waning powers. Smart’s journals are full of the difficulty of trying to start writing again in middle age, having spent the decades since By Grand Central Station working as a copyeditor and sometime journalist to support her four children.

In Rogues Smart writes, “The page is as white as my face after a night of weeping. It is as sterile as my devastated mind. All martyrdoms are in vain.” Her poems too—I was also reading her Collected Poems at the same time—talk of the difficulty of writing. One is even titled “Trying to Write”. But they are also full of the difficult joys of parenting and the small lessons learned from snails and bulbs in her garden.

These are struggles I know all too well, however much I berate myself for insufficient self-discipline, for spending too much of myself on the day-to-day pleasure: that first cup of tea in the morning, watching the birds at the feeder, or taking a walk through this astonishing world where lilacs and dogwoods are blooming again, surprised all over again by their extravagant ebullience.

I thought about Tillie Olson’s Silences which discusses the silences in women’s lives, the long stretches when they do not write or paint or whatever because they are busy with children and home-making. I swore that wouldn’t happen to me but it did. How could it not? Now, like Smart, I struggle to find the words that once filled my head and hands. But I have the great joy of my children’s company and all the lessons they have taught me. I’m also delighted to see many of my friends, their children grown, taking up (or retaking) some form of art: painting or writing, viola or piano.

I hate it that we have to learn these lessons all over again, every generation. And saddened that, for all our work in the 1970s and since, for all our progress, this is one riddle we have not solved: how to do the best for our beloved children, as we so desperately desire, and not lose the vocations and avocations that seem intrinsic to our very selves. Although perhaps they are only postponed, and that is not so bad. At least these days most of us live long enough to embark on a second life once the children are grown. For Smart, having to care for two of her grandchildren, that second life seemed far too short.

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