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Conversations with the Dead: Patti Smith’s M Train

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I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself – tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part – the unclear or partially articulated.

Patti Smith’s M Train (I presume the M stands for memory) is essentially a series of conversations with the dead and pilgrimages to the haunts and grave sites of writers past: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Bowles, Genet, Wittgenstein, Camus, Sebald, Plath, Mishima, Akutagawa, Dasai. Comprised of a patchwork quilt of genres, it combines autobiography with a book of dreams, a touch of travel writing, a salute to coffee houses, an ode to memory. Smith, who is a latter-day Beat and an admitted Romantic, blends a deep, if non-denominational spirituality with an unshakable commitment to fate. She reads Tarot cards, believes in dreams, isn’t concerned if she loses a camera or a favorite overcoat or realizes she has forgetfully left all of her luggage in a hotel room as she boards a flight. Unlike the A train that Smith takes to her ramshackle bungalow on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway, her M train delightfully meanders through time and place without warning or direction.

Perhaps the most telling story in Patti Smith M Train (Knopf, 2015) is the one we encounter at the outset of the book.

Several months before our first anniversary Fred [Sonic Smith, who she married around 1980] told me that if I promised to give him a child he would first take me anywhere in the world. Without hesitation I chose Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America. I had long wished to see the remains of the French penal colony where hard-core criminals were once shipped before being transferred to Devil’s Island. In The Thief’s Journal Jean Genet had written of Saint-Laurent as hallowed ground and of the inmates incarcerated there with devotional empathy. In his Journal he wrote of a hierarchy of inviolable criminality, a manly saintliness that flowered at its crown in the terrible reaches of French Guiana. He had ascended the ladder toward them: reform school, petty thief, and three-time loser; but as he was sentenced the prison he’d held in such reverence was closed…Genet served his time in Fresnes Prison, bitterly lamenting that he would never attain the grandeur that he aspired to.

Patti and Fred make their way to French Guiana (no easy task) and when they finally reach Saint-Laurent she solemnly takes some photographs and gathers up three stones to save in a Gitane matchbox, “with its silhouette of a Gypsy posturing with her tambourine in a swirl of indig0-tinged smoke. I pictured a small yet triumphal moment passing the stones to Genet.” She never managed to meet Genet, but some two decades later, on a visit to Morocco, she finally deposited the three stones on Genet’s grave in Larache, not far from Tangier. But it isn’t Genet that she recalls when she places the stones (“Genet was dead and belonged to no one”). It was Fred, who died in 1994, “dressed in khaki, his long hair shorn, standing alone in the undergrowth of tall grass and spreading palms. I saw his hand and his wristwatch. I saw his wedding ring and his brown leather shoes.”

This difficult trip to French Guiana represents, if you will, the yang side of Patti Smith, the intense, often gregarious world traveler. Smith’s yin side manifests itself as a kind of routine New York-centered idleness, a deliberately meditative isolation. But it’s a nourishing, regenerative idleness in which Smith dreams, observes, thinks, soaks in detective programs on the television, fills up her notebooks. Smith’s life, the reader quickly sees, is full of rituals, whether it is occupying a favorite chair at the neighborhood coffee house, visiting the grave of a hallowed writer, or photographing objects and places as if they were sacred.

Smith is well-known for being an admirer of W.G. Sebald. She put “anything by W.G. Sebald” on her list of favorite books a few years ago. In 2011 she participated in a huge Sebald event on the tenth anniversary of his death, and so it is not surprising that she spends a few pages in M Train writing about the effect his book-length poem After Nature had on her.

What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.

If I had a “best ten books of 2015,” M Train would be on the list, and now I am anxious to read Smith’s memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Smith writes with a lack of pretension that is utterly winning. Other than an occasional reference to giving a concert or a reading, nothing in M Train tells us that the author is an internationally acclaimed writer and musician (or, in the unfortunate wording of the book jacket, a “mulitplatform”artist). She takes the subway, rides the bus, feeds her cats, and sits on her East Village stoop to smoke a cigarette like any other ordinary New Yorker.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I hadn’t really paid too much attention to this release, as much as I enjoyed Just Kids. I had noticed a number of readers/reviewers rather disappointed, but now that I read your review I can imagine why some might be put off whereas I am now keenly interested. I will likely wait for paperback though given the reading backlog ahead of me.

    Thank you.

    December 30, 2015
    • I liked M Train much more than I expected to. It has something to do with Smith herself, who seems determined to live according to a fairly simple ethic: be loyal, accept whatever fate throws your way, acknowledge those who showed you the way.

      December 30, 2015

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