Patti Smith is a woman of many talents. She’s an accomplished performer, visual artist, and photographer, as well as a punk-rock icon and poet. With the publication of her exceptional memoir Just Kids in 2010, she added National Book Award winner to the list.
In Just Kids (which I liked so much I read it twice within a year) Smith chronicles her life from her blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey through her discovery of her love of music and poetry and art to her eventual move in the 1960s/early 1970s to New York City. There she lived for a time in the Chelsea Hotel surrounded by many of the same musicians, artists, and writers she worshiped. It’s a book that is imbued with a specific time and a specific place, so filled with perfect descriptions of life then that you feel as though you, too, were hanging out at the Chelsea, chatting up Bob Dylan at the bar.
Her newly released follow-up to it, M Train, feels different but somehow similar, permeated instead with Smith’s attachment to her memories and the things and people she’s admired and loved and lost. It’s not a straightforward “this happened and then that happened” memoir. It reads instead as a beautiful look into Smith’s own mind, into her ruminations about the past and her obsessions with certain books, authors, and even TV shows.
We tag along with her as she travels in the past and in the present; a trip to Japan, a trip to French Guiana, a trip to Berlin, a trip to Mexico, among others. We’re beside her as she visits the graves of Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, and Arthur Rimbaud, marking these moments with quiet gratitude and respect. We see her Manhattan apartment, filled with photos and talismans from her life, as well as her books and her cats. We sip coffee along with her each morning, notebook and pen in hand, at the small café across from her apartment. We discover, as she does, the beauty of Rockaway Beach, and the unexpected folly of purchasing a falling-down house mere weeks before Hurricane Sandy would strike. (The house, remarkably, was still standing after, though many around it were not.) We feel her pain, years later, after first her husband died and then her brother not long after.
At age 68, it feels like Smith’s taking stock, in a sense, holding on to memories through photos and objects, trying to regain what’s been lost and hold on to what hasn’t been (yet). I think that’s something we can all relate to and Smith gives us her beautiful words to savor as we melt into that melancholy.