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Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory

Patti Smith writes prose like a poet, composes songs that become part of one’s being, has the perception of a cat who has lived nine very long lives, and an ability to surprise with each new creative endeavor. She takes the English language—the language of William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Bob Dylan and Toni Morrison (to name a few)—and manipulates it into a vehicle of insight and hope; love and defeat. Her inspiration seems to come from a vision informed by the outsiders in the world of the word: Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs and Sappho. Likewise, it comes from a wonder in the lives we live and the environments we live it in.

Her newest effort, a wonderfully crafted memoir of dreams and reality, is titled M Train. It chronicles her physical travels and work, her loves and her loss. Moving between dream and this dimension, Smith unwinds a chronicle of growing old without regret. Like many others in this part of life, she sees her world growing smaller because her children are on their own and her spouse, the love of her life, is dead. Occasionally sad but never maudlin, Smith’s reflections echo with the energy of a rocker and the pensiveness of a rocking chair.

Coffee shops and writers provide the base from which Smith shares her story in M Train. One particular such shop, called Cafe Ino, used to exist near her apartment in Lower Manhattan. An apparent creature of routine, Smith began most of her days with a cup of coffee and a notebook in this cafe. She also begins this book with such a visit. pattismithmtrainNext we find ourselves accompanying her and her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, to French Guiana. Her reason for visiting is unique: she wishes to see the former French prison there; a prison the French writer Jean Genet hoped to be imprisoned in during his lifetime but was denied when it closed before his sentence could be fulfilled. As I read Smith’s description of the journey and her description of the prison I thought to myself: only writers like Patti Smith and Jean Genet could make me want to go to jail. That is the power of their words.

Life must defer to dreams. Smith writes that line somewhere in this episodic journey between the worlds our dreams describe and our bodies exist in. Like the moments after a hit of hashish sneaks into one’s mind rearranging conventional perceptions of outside reality, Smith’s descriptions and reminiscences blend the transcendence of dream and the linearity of real time. The floods of Sandy Hook drown her mourning of a lost coat and her visits to Mexico City and Japan enhance her enjoyment of a cold winter’s day in New York. Artists transit her memory and their works describe her current existence. Her and William Burroughs hanging out discussing the CIA. The men and women she calls gone Beats who ushered in the phenomenon we call the counterculture. She meets chess champion Bobby Fischer, known for his eccentricities, lack of social skills and genius. They sing Buddy Holly songs together. Later she writes of those times we are fortunate enough to eclipse our dreams with reality. One should be as lucky as Smith to have so many such moments.

In addition to being a sublime narrative of a life, M Train is also a working description of Smith’s artistic process. Sometimes she spells this process out; for example, when she describes composing a poem about Moby Dick. Other times this process reveals itself unwittingly as we turn the book’s pages spellbound by her use of the language. It exists in her memories of her father, a working man she loved and respected who lived the life fate laid out for him appreciating it as much as he could. It exists in her fond and loving stories about the years she and Fred Sonic Smith spent raising children, traveling the world, and sharing a love. Its very revealing is a delight.

Memoir is a tricky thing. Memory is even trickier. What Smith has done in this book is combine the two, surrendered to her dreams, and created a work of art that sculpts words into visions. Mendacity erupts into beauty and beauty becomes sublime. M Train is about Patti Smith framing the moments of her life as they occur and as they are remembered. Much more than a well-lived life being told, it is a window into a time, a history, and the recollections of an individual whose unique and particular perspective we are lucky enough to have shared.