Nasty Lucky Genes

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Arms of the Infinite by Christopher Barker
    Pomona, 329 pp, £9.99, August 2006, ISBN 1 904590 04 7

Elizabeth Smart was browsing one day between the wars in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road. Young, blonde and original, unclaimed by her Ottawa upbringing or her mother’s social hopes, Smart came to lean against those London bookshelves as if they alone contained all the answers. That day, she drew her finger over a line of volumes, took one down and read the poems where she stood, deciding by the last page that the author was the man she was put on earth to marry.

George Barker. His name seems almost seedy now, redolent of multiple fatherings and free drinks and Benzedrine, a low-rent Catholic visionary forever caught in some personal smog of Latinate rhetoric and English ambition. But at the time of Elizabeth Smart’s first fascination, Barker was a hero of many sorts: taken for a Byronic adventurer and a part-time horseman of the New Apocalypse, fêted by the small magazines, published by Eliot, anthologised by Yeats, and understood, alongside Dylan Thomas, to be one of the chief lyrical men of the age. Anaïs Nin, of all the spotters of seedy excellence, names him in her diaries as the sort of person who might put a pulse into a dull room:

George Barker comes, with his dilated Celtic blue eyes, his brilliance and accuracy of mind, vivid talk, electric and fertile … A taut mind and body, throwing off sparks. We talk with suppleness, clarity, swiftness. Images appear spontaneously, a search for heightened living. His body is all keyed up for it. I am sure he makes love the same way.

Nin always writes as if she wants to do it right now on top of the typewriter. Nevertheless, she can’t have been very wrong about Barker: it seems that everybody who met him wanted to have four children by him, and each of his long-term admirers was willing in the end to sink to some pretty low depths, and live through many shades of domestic horror, to accommodate this very male poet’s ‘search for heightened living’. That appears to have been one of the delights of talented women back then, to enjoy the privilege of having your nerves roasted by a talented man. But perhaps one should be thankful for the George Barkers, because their exquisite vanity sent out a thousand beautiful ships, few so perfectly rigged or better equipped for the demands of the modern climate than that of Elizabeth Smart.

She was no opponent of male bravado. In fact she must have loved it and saw her chance for wholeness there. She never refers to Barker’s poem ‘The Leaping Laughers’ in any of her writings, but it features in the book she read in that bookshop, and it might have given her a nice clue to the gymnastics of male masochism, a clue she chose at that stage to ignore:

Many men mean
Well: but tall walls
Impede, their hands bleed and
They fall, their seed the
Seed of the fallen.

Smart spent three years chasing him and once she got him, chose – like his wife, Jessica – to live in thrall to the seed of the fallen. It was to become one of the savage love stories of the period, covering several continents and any number of broken houses, agonies, separations and breakdowns, the whole business wreathed in a perpetually sprouting foliage of metaphor. Smart’s writing, more than his, would dwell on the matter, but it is hard at this distance not to feel it is essentially a story about George Barker’s shittiness. Women are apt to dress up for their great encounters with male brutality, and perhaps it has been something of a habit to turn the carelessness of the children’s father, the meanness, the selfishness, into a more bearable series of encounters with the nearly human. Loving a man is not sainthood, but Smart showed how far a person could go towards self-immolation – all that distance, all those years – simply to avoid devaluing their own capacity for love.

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