15 January, 2016

M train by Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s award winning memoir Just Kids somehow struck the perfect balance between raw autobiographical candour and the affectionate, unabashed mythologizing of herself and her friends. It told of her burgeoning artistic instincts after moving to New York City, and of the people she rubbed shoulders with as she searched for her own voice. The book focused especially on her friendship (and at one point, intense love affair) with iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Her second memoir M Train takes a less linear but no less compelling approach to further reflections on Smith’s life. The difference is that Patti Smith the female author in her late sixties is very much present throughout this book. As it turns out, this legendary priestess of punk who once sang that “people have the power” is something of a hermit (understatement). She would rather stay in her apartment with her cats than mingle with friends, and she would rather sit at her tiny table in the same café drinking the same coffee and scrawling in her notebook than dine at the type of five star restaurant she can nowadays afford surrounded by other, well, people. It is during these solitary stretches in the present that the ghosts of Smith’s past - her brother, and especially her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith - are given the space to revisit her, and it is through these visitations that she sets down with tender care the emotional core of this new memoir. In this way these stretches of present day autobiographical solitude act as a narrative device through which to indulge the memories that most haunt her.

Then there are the visits she herself makes. Like a living ghost Smith seems to go haunting the dead more often than she associates with the living, making pilgrimages to the graves of authors like Jean Genet and Sylvia Plath among others, her trusty polaroid camera always present. These journeys in turn lead to further reflections on the huge influence literature has had on her life. The book not only balances past and present with care, but also plain prose with something more poetic and charged. Like one of her heroes Jack Kerouac, she likes to break into poetic rhapsody, often expressing her lust for life and the speed through which ideas are coursing through her with unpunctuated pile-ups of words and images. Unlike Kerouac she has developed a classic novelist’s sense of poetic timing, knowing just when to dream her way out of a long stretch of café ennui on into a moment of charged elation. It is the elation of gratitude for those she has loved and lost.

This is another fine memoir. My only word of warning is that if you’re trying to quit coffee then this is not the book for you. Patti really loves coffee.

Title: M train
Author: Patti Smith
Recommended by: by Simon C, Central Library

Simon C works in Readers Services for Auckland Libraries. His special reading interests include 19th-century French poetry and 20th-century modernist fiction. He likes to take psychogeographical walks in his spare time, sometimes not even leaving his desk to do so.

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