Friday, January 1, 2016

"M Train," by Patti Smith

I wrote here on 2/17/15 about how fascinated I was with singer/poet/writer/artist Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids.” When I saw she had published a new memoir/essay collection, “M Train” (Knopf, 2015), I hesitated to read it, thinking it could not possibly live up to the first memoir. I also read that it was less linear, less explicitly memoiristic, more impressionistic, all of which could be good things, but also could go very wrong. But I did plunge in to “M Train,” and it was all of the things I just mentioned. At times it felt slightly meandering, but in a good way. “Just Kids” was about Smith’s youth in New York City, her early career as a musician and writer, and her relationship with her fellow artist and soulmate, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “M Train” is about her later life, including her years in Michigan with her husband, the musician Fred Sonic Smith, who unfortunately died suddenly and too young. Most of the book focuses on her current life back in New York City, with many forays into the past. She writes of various journeys, actually pilgrimages, that she has made to places where her admired writers and artists lived and/or died. These iconic figures include Jean Genet, Haruki Murakami, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Sylvia Plath, and Frida Kahlo. The journeys become important ceremonial occasions in her life, and also inspiration for her writing and photography. Throughout the book, Smith shares her dreams, her reading experiences, her love of coffee and cafes, her feelings about getting older (she was 68 at the time the book was published in October), her attraction to Rockaway Beach and her buying a ramshackle house there, which soon after was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy but is now being rebuilt, and much more. I so appreciate the seeming openness of her writing. Most of all, the writing is highly poetic, and captures both the author’s creativity and her feelings. The sometimes impressionistic aspect reminds us of how we all think and dream, not always linearly and certainly not always logically. And it reminds us of the importance of the life of the mind and the artistic life. Of course Smith portrays this condition much better and more poetically and effectively than we readers could do, but all of us can live better and more transcendent lives if we spend more time on thinking, dreaming, writing, and paying tribute to the writers and artists who have influenced us. This book includes about 50 photographs, almost all by Patti Smith herself.
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