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'Auguries of Innocence' by Patti Smith

PoetryDeathPatti SmithBookArthur Rimbaud

Who would have guessed, in the mid-1970s, that Patti Smith would end up as the visionary poet-mother of rock 'n' roll? Smith's brilliant early career seemed likely to end in burnout; as she intoned, memorably, at the start of her 1975 debut album, "Horses": "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

Smith, however, has not burned out but thrived. The key is that she is a poet first; she has always approached rock with a poet's eye. Her first collection, "Seventh Heaven," came out in 1972, and throughout her career she has relied on verse to ground her, even during the extended period of nearly total silence (1980-96) when she lived in Michigan and raised two kids.

Smith's ninth book, "Auguries of Innocence" (Ecco: 64 pp. $15.95 paper), was published in 2005; it's just been reissued as an "expanded" paperback. Actually, that's a bit of misnomer, since this edition features only two new poems. But the work here offers a vivid glimpse of how Smith has matured. If her early writing was marked by a free-form exuberance, poems such as "The Oracle" or "The Leaves Are Late Falling" are much more tightly structured, and even "Birds of Iraq," a long lament against the war in that country, is measured and controlled.

And yet "Auguries of Innocence" does offer glimmers of the old Smith, incantatory and ecstatic, especially in "Mummer Love," a prose poem that invokes her muse Arthur Rimbaud, or "The Writer's Song," which closes out the book. There, she reminds us once again of the sustaining power of poetry: "it is better to write / then die / a thousand prayers / and souvenirs / set away in earthenware / we draw the jars / from the shelves / drink our parting / from ourselves / so be we king / or be we bum / the reed still whistles / the heart still hums."

david.ulin@latimes.comDavid L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

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