This is a review of Patti Smith's new book M Train. By Charles Cave.
If your first introduction to Patti Smith is her new book, M Train, she almost seems an ascetic. Direct and disarming in her 2010 memoir Just Kids; hedonistic on her 1975 album, Horses, Smith's voice has evolved over the years to give us this: sparse prose, each word precise and selected. Always light years ahead of her contemporaries, a brilliant brain trapped in a poet's waiflike body, Smith has settled comfortably into the authority afforded her by age.
Just Kids was an affectionate memoir about her longstanding friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the chaotic life they lived in 1970s New York, but M Train is an altogether subtler affair. It goes to the heart of the adult Smith, a widow with grown children who still lives and writes in New York, and for whom the trappings of success have not dimmed her compulsion to make art.
She writes, “I could write endlessly about nothing, if only I had nothing to say,” and on first reading it does seem that she has written a book about “nothing”. In it, she sits in cafés, struggles to move past writer's bloc, prowls her beloved New York City, and reminisces about her past dream to open a café of her own. There is little in the way of plot; the narrative, if there is one, is of a life lived in memory, relayed in anecdotal shards.
Fred “Sonic” Smith, revered MC5 guitarist, former regular at Warhol's Factory, and spouse to Smith, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994, aged 45. His death left his wife bereft; his loss permeates her book. The elliptical prose has a dreamlike quality, setting out as it does to “write about nothing”, taking a journey on the mind-train of the title, with Smith as the conductor. On the first page, she dreams of a “vaguely handsome, intensely laconic” cowpoke, who she meets in a café. But the book is more concerned with dreams of a different kind: the romantic fantasies of the young.
Everyday objects, everyday moments, take on significance in this context. The coffee pot given her by her mother, her father's writing desk, a misshapen clay giraffe made for her by her daughter. Everyday activities, too: drinking coffee in her regular chair, going to the movies alone, watching her favourite detective shows on television. She writes:
Sighing, I meander around my room scanning for cherished things to make certain they haven't been drawn into that half-dimensional place where things just disappear. Things beyond socks or glasses: Kevin Shields's EBow, a snapshot of a sleepy-faced Fred, a Burmese offering bowl, Margot Fonteyn's slippers... I pause before my father's chair.
Often referred to as punk's poet laureate, Smith was always more interested in words than music. On 5 October, performing at the New Yorker festival, she said, “I feel embarrassed when people call me a musician. I can't play anything.” The music on Horses and her other albums is credited to Velvet Underground guitarist and MC5 producer, John Cale, and Smith's longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye. But the words – the words are all Smith. The directness of her poetry, her unflinching regard for truth-telling, for articulating the flawed world, is still here in M Train, but there is a remove to it now. She has moved on from the irreverence of youth, and looks back on her early years with Fred, her dreams of opening a café of her own, and her artistic heyday, with an affection which is not without sentimentality.
The book contains short anecdotes and some snippets of fiction, written by Smith, inspired by her beloved poets. It is illustrated with her Polaroid photographs, in black and white, which she has taken compulsively all her life. The anecdotes are not all equally compelling, and readers who are unfamiliar with the work of some of the writers may find her referral to them pretentious (Ibsen, Sebald, Genet and, of course, Rimbaud are all repeatedly name-checked here, Smith's connection to each one almost as though they were friends). On New Year's Eve, she writes, “My little Abyssinian circled the floor with me as I paced, wrestling with a poem I was aiming to finish to usher in the New Year, in homage to the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolano. In reading his Amulet I noticed a passing reference to the hecatomb – an ancient ritualistic slaughter of one hundred oxen. I decided to write a hecatomb for him – a hundred-line poem, It would be a way to thank him for spending the last stretch of his brief life racing to finish his masterpiece, 2666.”
However, the straightforwardness of her writing and her no-holes-barred approach to rendering life on the page propel the reader right to the end. Even in a book about “nothing” but endless cups of coffee and ruminations on the workings of the mind, Smith still has plenty to say. When one boards the M Train, the journey is at least as interesting as the destination.
Charles is a writer and editor from Sydney, whose essays and short fiction have appeared in Bread Wine & Thou, Ampersand, the Rag and Bone Man Salon, and others. Charles likes black coffee, neat whiskey, noir theatre and the moment the lights go down in the cinema.