The multi-talented Patti Smith continues her third career as an essayist/memoirist with her superb , slim new book M Train. Having taken the literary world by surprise and storm with her achingly lovely Just Kids, her memoir of her early days in New York with the equally young Robert Mapplethorpe, which won The National Book Award for nonfiction, she continues her interior meditations and near monologues in M Train. Smith manages, stylistically, to be both a Romantic and a Minimalist concurrently, no mean feat, as those two styles might seem mutually exclusive. Smith’s life has been tinged by a number of early and tragic losses, amongst them her brother Todd and her husband Fred Smith. Solitude, rather than loneliness, however, is Smith’s preferred method of existence; she spends a lot of time in her small Village apartment in New York, and lots in a nearby cafe, drinking coffee (and wearing her signature watch cap), and taking notes for things that she may or may not write. She lets us readers into the heart of her creative processes, thus, while sharing with us her spare, minimalist, black-and-white Polaroids, all of seemingly mundane objects/spaces/places. Her photographs and prose remind me of artist Mel Bochner’s greatest line, “objects are emotions”. She’s not so much fetishing objects as she is honoring them and all the possible memories that she invokes and evokes through and with them. She even made me like her cats, an I am admittedly not a cat lover, but I do share with her a love of solitude, of thinking, of time without a lot of people around, of reading and writing and enjoying the kinds of reveries to which writers are prone.
But in the tradition of great nineteenth century Romantics, the most obvious being Lord Byron, she makes pilgramages all over the world, where she will take some stones from a ruined prison in Central America to a poet/writer’s grave in France: these are tributes, of a sort, and they remind me of the pilgramages made by religious seekers over centuries in most all religious traditions. She seems to believe that these objects will bring some sort of peace to the person being so honored, but she’s also creating a special kind of peace for herself. Her photographs include a Bear-cum-tray , used for calling cards, in Tolstoy’s house, and a chair, used by the prolifically gifted Mexican writer Roberto Bolano (I share her wild enthusiasm for his writing: his magnum opus, 2666, is one of the great masterpieces of modernist/postmodern literature), Frida Kahlo’s bed, a dress she wore, and her crutches, amongst others, but she goes to all these places to pay her homages.
Smith also has a kind of deadpan sense of humor, so when she inadvertently joins a group of people fascinated by the life and death of an Anarctic explorer, she’ll leap on a place to go to , say, London, unprepared, to read/invent/create a poem or an essay–whatever comes to mind–for the group. She likes odd groups of people. She thinks nothing of flying to London to stay in a hotel room for a week to watch a certain mystery show on tv: these things spark her creativity, germinate her own ideas, so the book takes us all over the world, from Tokyo to London to Moscow, to the Cayenne River, and the like. She travels light and alone, but she tends to have friends everywhere, with whom she hooks up for short but intense periods of time, and who tend to share her romantic notions of homage, of paying tribute to those whose own lives and writings have so influenced theirs. Though she claims to be writing about nothing, her nothing is rich , replete with the inner workings of her mind, and before you know it, her ‘nothings’ have completed a fascinating and oddly moving book, describing pieces of her journey through life: we need to remember that she’s almost seventy, so traveling alone can’t be easy on or for her.
When she purchases her first house in the Rockaways, just outside Queens itself, which is partly blown away by Hurricane Sandy (she partly picks the area because her favorite coffee server in The Village has opened a coffee shop there), her ferocious lack of attachments to material objects stands her in superb stead. Like Proust, in a way, she is keener on the memory of things than she is on the event itself. In the last line of the book, she states “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a cafe.”
And that’s indeed what she does, in this modest but magnificent memoir, where she does indeed make great music out of the most mundane of objects, arias and sonatas and symphonies to the ordinary transformed: Patti Smith is a marvel in her ability to do these things, a Bauhausian in the ‘less is more’ sense, a romantic who understands that the simplest objects are stand ins for great moments/loves/art/literature/people. Her spare, minimalist writing style (and polaroids) are thus that much more meaningful, the much greater, as they are the microcosms for grandeur, just as Southern Song paintings from China represent in one small space all of Nature’s grandeur.
We salute you, Patti Smith.