After I finished reading M Train, Patti Smith’s mesmeric new memoir, I sat on a round chair in a humid house and didn’t move. The hour, it seemed, had been churched. My vision had been blurred. My ideas about memory and loss, the physical and the intangible had been lifted; they were floating. I didn’t think I could love this writer, rocker, poet, visual artist Patti Smith any more than I already did, but now, thanks to this book, I do.
M Train is song, soul, search, truth. It feels like a most lovely, indelible, meandering thought, but it is a thought that has been framed by an exquisite structure, an intelligent purpose.
Think W. G. Sebald. Think Calvino. Think whole.
In M Train, Smith is mostly alone. She is in cafes with her beloved coffee. She is in hotel rooms watching detective shows. She is talking to her cats. She is reading her bundled mail, many weeks after it arrives. Saying yes to invitations that demonstrate the enormous range of her reading, knowledge, and compassion (Alfred Wegener, The Killing, Bobby Fisher, Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, Akutagawa). She wears clean versions of yesterday’s clothes, sleeps in her fraying coat, rereads old books, walks a gentle bend, buys a run-down cottage in Rockaway just days ahead of that terrible Sandy storm, carries her Polaroid film and her Polaroid camera with the hope of holding on.
Smith’s beloved husband Fred, lost much too soon, is remembered in these pages, though Smith—always a delicate and dignified writer—keeps most of the sacred him to herself. It is enough to know that she misses him, that loss encircles her, that she is sometimes joyful and sometimes sad. That all these years on, she lives.
Not boasting of rocker days, not dropping hints, not conjuring any faux humility about who she was and still is. We get no news about Smith’s stage heroics. She never identifies her own awards. She doesn’t shine her resume. She doesn’t seem to notice how wonderful she is. Smith is trying to write a book, is what she is. Trying to do something ever so slightly more than sitting in a café with coffee (black) remembering and imagining the past.
Those dreams, those fictions, that clock without hands. Writing is everything more.
M Train is a house Smith builds. In its sacred, quiet rooms she makes ample room for us. We cry with her. We cry alongside her. We bring our own talismans to the graves of lost things and kneel there, feeling raw and vulnerable and momentarily pure. Smith confesses to uncertainty. Her uncertainty is a lamp:
“But now I cross the sea with the sole aim to possess within a single image the straw hat of Robert Graves, typewriter of Hesse, spectacles of Beckett, sickbed of Keats. What I have lost and cannot find I remember. What I cannot see I attempt to call. Working on a string of impulses, bordering illumination.”
Sometimes you finish reading a book and you think, Okay. That’s it. That captures it.
I felt like that, reading M Train.