Review: Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’ reckons with life, while ‘Collected Lyrics’ shows her living energy as words
First, let’s clear up a misconception: Patti Smith’s “M Train” is not a sequel to her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir “Just Kids.” In fact, “M Train” is not a memoir at all, except in the loosest sense — a book of days, a year in the life, a series of reflections, more vignettes than sustained narrative. By saying that, I don’t mean to be critical, for vignettes are what Smith does best. Just listen to “Land” and “Birdland,” or read “Woolgathering,” originally published in 1992 as a limited-edition handbook and reissued 19 years later in expanded form.
“Woolgathering” may be my favorite of Smith’s books, smart and subtle and full of inference, existing in the middle ground between prose and poetry, memory and daily life. When she writes, as she does there, of having “no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the combo of the wind,” she is describing her entire aesthetic, in which the internal becomes externalized, or vice versa, and we find ourselves moving through a landscape that is both utterly real and also strangely magical, one defined by myth and icons, “a silk of souls,” she sings in “Paths That Cross,” “that whispers to me.”
If you’ve spent much time listening to Smith or reading her work, you know who those icons are: Rimbaud, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, and her companion Robert Mapplethorpe, who was such a central figure in “Just Kids.” All of them emerge, to greater or lesser extent, in “M Train,” but here they are "[l]ost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak.”
“Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license but he couldn’t afford to fly a plane,” she writes about the early period of her marriage. “I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands. Tasks were completed, sump pumps manned, sandbags piled, trees planted, shirts ironed, hems stitched, and yet we reserved the right to ignore the hands that kept on turning. Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.”
That’s a marvelous piece of writing, with its passive voice construction putting the chores, as opposed to the chore-bearer, front and center, rendering them less intentional than inevitable. This is the point of “M Train,” that we are what happens to us, that we ourselves have no control. Partway through the book, Smith portrays an encounter with a waitress at her favorite coffee house: “What are you writing?” the woman asks. “I looked up at her,” Smith remembers, “somewhat surprised. I had absolutely no idea.” The implication — for me, anyway — is that she was working on this book.
The coffee house moment comes in the midst of a riff on the nature of masterpieces: “There are two kinds of masterpieces,” Smith offers. “There are the classic works monstrous and divine like ‘Moby-Dick’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus.’ And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry.” It’s not hard to determine the side Smith occupies.
Just look at her “Collected Lyrics,” also out this month, and you can see the evidence; “I am the seed of mystery / the thorn the veil the face of grace,” she writes in “Easter,” dedicated to Rimbaud and his sisters Vitalie and Isabelle. And yet, in “M Train,” she doubles back on that, declaring “that there is only one kind of masterpiece: a masterpiece.” Less thinking, in other words, and more doing. Keep making the gesture, and the art will come.
In that sense, “M Train” is a book about the process of its own creation, a slice of life with skeleton exposed. Like memory, it flows in and out of the present, as Smith goes on about the business of existence — writing, performing, traveling, pondering. It is not a perfect book, meandering in places, overly romantic at times about the purifying power of art. But why not? Smith has always represented aspiration as much as achievement, the idea that art ennobles us by bringing us in contact with something, some thread of thought or feeling, larger than ourselves.
As she insists, “All things are open to the believer.” At the same time, she knows, we have no choice but to deal with the world on its terms. “Just come back, I was thinking. You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes,” she writes to her late husband, recognizing the futility of the sentiment even as she renders it in words.
The message is that living is a kind of invocation, or better yet, a form of prayer. “We want things we cannot have,” she laments, acknowledging and longing. “We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”
Alfred A. Knopf: 272 pp., $25
Collected Lyrics: 1970-2015
Ecco: 352 pp., $29.99
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