Year of the Monkey
“Smith is unarguably a talented writer with a great command of rhythm and rhyme, of imagery and simile and all things lyrical.”
There is much to love about Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith’s latest lyric essay/prose poem of a memoir.
Smith is unarguably a talented writer with a great command of rhythm and rhyme, of imagery and simile and all things lyrical. She has an immense gift for rendering beautiful places and moments one suspects are only special in the way she saw them, and because of the way she wrote them. Take, for instance, her opening paragraph about the otherwise mundane act of arriving at a motel late at night:
“It was well past midnight when we pulled up in front of the Dream Motel. I paid the driver, made sure I left nothing behind, and rang the bell to wake up the proprietor. It's almost 3 a.m., she said, but gave me my key and a bottle of mineral water. My room was on the lowest floor, facing the long pier. I opened the sliding glass door and could hear the sound of the waves accompanied by the faint barking of sea lions sprawled out on the planks beneath the wharf. Happy New Year! I called out. Happy New Year to the waxing moon, the telepathic sea.”
Her musings and life experiences—both the ones she has published in the form of music, and the ones that have become wildly successful books and consolidated a literary following that prizes how she feels things, how she describes them and brings them to life—have received many important accolades, the National Book Award, and (repeatedly) the Grammy, among them.
And listen, everyone loves Patti Smith, right? It seems even those who don’t wish they did, and why not? She’s a great writer, and nobody wants to be the knucklehead who criticizes what a great writer puts out, the way in which she remembers every thing, every detail, in her hands, all of it prose melody, assonance, and alliteration innately masterful like a great piece of music that goes on for hundreds of pages, the resulting effect akin to a well-executed stream of consciousness song or score.
Because if you love that and you want to see, to really see, everything on your road to the gift of another’s life wisdom, then you already love every book Patti Smith has ever written, and you will love this one, too.
“This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows.”
But the issue for some readers might be that it doesn’t end there. It never ends there.
“But getting back to the moment, which is already gone, I was alone in Virginia Beach, suddenly left holding the bag. The brown paper bag containing the worn copy of The Part About the Critics. I stood there attempting to absorb the absurd truth of the punch line uttered by Ernest. Come on, you, I said to the mirror, one that had fallen from a compact with the gilt peeling away, one easily conjured. Come on, I said to one eye and then to the wondering other, get focused. You got to get a grip on the whole picture.”
Yes! That is all a knucklehead might be trying to say. Digression. Lots of it. And though there are worse things than digression that ultimately knows how to become beauty, let’s just acknowledge it might not be everyone’s hot dog bun when reading a narrative book. Of prose.
Let’s stipulate that some readers might prefer to have a gradual sense of where the book is going beyond the fact that it is the story of 365 days in the author’s life as she struggles with the illness and later loss of a dear friend.
That they might hope for a memoir that doesn’t insist on remembering the past in such minute detail, then projecting each of those details into the future, later thrusting them even further forward into the dream present, only to then return the entire hot mess to the past, while also telling you the color, feel, shape and sound of the candy wrapper with the misspelled name found on the street, as well as how the vomit of a drunk man on a boot was once (yesterday, a year ago, who can remember?) cleaned with aloe Vera wipes useful for cleaning camera lenses.
Because, sure, details can be enchanting even when having no real bearing on a story, as in this delightfully written dream with no other role within Year of the Monkey than to be gorgeous:
“Back in my room I was surprised that someone had untaped my diagram from the wall and rolled it up. I laid the Jerry shirt on my pillow, plopped in the easy chair and opened Aurélia, but barely got past the alluring first sentence. Our dreams are a second life. I dozed off briefly into a revolution dream, the French one that is, with young fellows dressed in flowing shirts and leather breeches. Their leather is bound to a heavy gate with leather straps. A follower approaches him with a torch, holding it steady as the flame burns through the thick binding. The leader is freed, his wrists black and bubbling. He calls out to his horse, then tells me he has formed a band called Glitter Noun.
—Why glitter? I say. Sparkle is better.
—Yeah but Sparklehorse already used up Sparkle.
—Why not just plain Noun?
—Noun. I like it, says the leader. Noun it is.
He mounts his spotted Appaloosa, wincing as the reins fall across his wrist.
—Take care of that, I say.
He has dark wavy hair and one wondering eye. He nods and rides off with his band toward the distant pampas, stopping to draw water from the rough stream were the same misspelled wrappers turn in the current like small multi-colored fish.”
The risk with a writer like Smith—who can write the hell out of a dream, a moment, a candy wrapper—is that once invested with the weight of her talent for stringing words together, any digression seems more important than it might be to a reader trying (struggling) to find and follow the story.
If, however, this is just fine with you and you don’t mind diversion in exchange for loveliness that doesn’t feel the need to get anywhere in a hurry, then, by all means, this is your book. Sit back, read it, enjoy the detour.