I’ve just finished reading Patti Smith’s M Train and three days later I am still feeling empty and sad that it’s over. This book is billed as a memoir but it’s so much more than that, brimming with poignancy, wise but careful observations and a simple, child-like take on the many things that she encounters in her everyday life. And, let me just say, that the writing is exquisite.
Consider the following:
We want things we cannot have. 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. (page 209, M Train)
It was also surprising to me that Smith is perhaps not the “angry” poet I was expecting as some of her earlier punk music/work might suggest; rather, she looks after her cats tenderly and is clearly a gentle and devoted mother. Her way of seeing and reporting beauty in the everyday is very Buddhist to me and her rapt devotion and understanding of all things Bloomsbury (she’s actually photographed and stayed at Charleston House and Monk’s House – both lofty ambitions of my own!) also resonates with me since I absolutely share that fascination and am no stranger to cherishing a special piece of rock or a translucent piece of china with a cheerful, chintz motif myself.
There’s an astounding amount of coffee drinking going on in this book, often at the same local café but even when the reader knows that she will be ordering precisely the same black coffee with brown toast and olive oil each day, I still found myself engaged.
I am unable to explain why this happens and how completely Smith draws us in to her ordinary and yet extraordinary world.
But this is definitely not a “book about nothing” as Smith self-deprecatingly suggests.
It’s endearingly eccentric at times (she talks to inanimate objects and gives them personalities, I know, I know) but at the same time I was wildly jotting down references, writers and poets to research later (very much a case of I wanted to know more). It’s also key that Smith’s allusions, her assumption that the reader will be familiar with her own canon of sometimes hipster-obscure favorites never once strikes a hollow or pretentious tone.
For fans of her photography, there are plenty of Smith’s trademark Polaroids throughout the book and many document her graveside pilgrimages to famous writers such as Sylvia Plath and Jean Genet. As odd as this may sound, I can only say that it isn’t.
Actually, I now realize that it’s not possible for me personally to say something negative or objective about this book because it must have just presented itself to me at the right time (I completely believe in this as a phenomenon) speaking to a part of my spirit that was lying dormant and neglected.
And, I might have to read it again very soon.
Here’s an excellent interview with George Strombo if you are keen to know more.