Post #112 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler
by Patti Smith
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one.”
Around the World in 80 Days
Patti Smith’s latest memoir, M Train, links a long moving line of life events across chapters as if they were subway compartments making their daily way through Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Just as a railway car travels from one tunnel to the next going from darkness into light and then back again, we rock comfortably along on Smith’s swaying train of thought while she gathers memories. Readers come to know Patti Smith almost as well as she knows herself, so intimate and inviting are her sentences.
She’s done this before, reeling us in with an earlier memoir titled Just Kids, which I reviewed here on Women’s Memoirs. That volume, about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and oh so much more, won the 2010 National Book Award in nonfiction.
Surely another Patti Smith memoir couldn’t wring tears out of us yet again though, right? Ah, to believe that is to underestimate vastly the power of Smith’s small white Mont Blanc pen fueled by vats of java and a grief-stricken poetic heart.
Smith’s husband, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, died in 1994. Mourning the death of a spouse requires recurrent attention for the remainder of the survivor’s years, because memories and emotions arise in unexpected ways and unpredictable places. Smith’s brother died a month after her husband, doubling her grief. Sorrow, like fog, comes in on little cat feet and then moves on—but both sorrow and fog return, often giving rise to the inventiveness one finds in this new memoir.
Smith had already created in original ways via almost every existing artistic form. When she combined her poetry with music in 1974, she became midwife for the birth of punk rock. I was struck by Smith’s astonishing shape-shifting ability when I visited her 2003 art exhibit Strange Messenger in Houston, published as a book that same year. This “strange messenger” thought has seemed to captivate Smith throughout various genres. Her song of similar title, “Strange Messengers,” appears on her album Gung Ho, recorded in 2000.
In her new memoir, M Train, Smith once again employs a strange messenger in the form of a recurrent allegorical device: a cowboy who visits in her dreams and suggests playwright, actor, director, and writer Sam Shepard, with whom Smith had an affair in the early 1970s. She has also written about Shepard in a memoir sketch called “Cowboy Truths” found in her slim 1992 volume Woolgathering.
Smith’s usage of the cowboy image once more in M Train gives the impression of a continuing conversation with Shepard begun in Cowboy Mouth, a 1971 play written and performed by Smith and Shepard together. Smith has said Shepard “made me value myself as a writer” in Patricia Morrisroe’s biography titled Mapplethorpe.
Memoir writers might note the ways Patti Smith gradually developed a literary method with figurative intent via the cowboy theme. Memoirs invite readers to join the author in exploring a life, as the writer often attempts not only the mere setting down of past events but also making sense of them in the context of present existence.
In M Train, Smith effortlessly blends homage to writers, philosophers, and thinkers such as Jean Genet, Friedrich Schiller, Haruki Murakami, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Alfred Wegener, Neil Young, Sylvia Plath, and Ludwig Wittgenstein with thoughts about a wide-ranging array of topics: feminism, melancholia, her childhood, literature, the disappearance of things, or the bats of Austin, Texas. She sprinkles the pages with her own black-and-white photos of images such as Roberto Bolaño’s writing chair or Frida Kahlo’s bed. She adds interactions with her favorite television series, “The Killing.” She visits an assortment of coffee shops around the globe.
Hurricane Sandy spares the little house she had just purchased in Rockaway Beach, which Smith continues to renovate.
Her writing is simply gorgeous as she parses her heart. She brings it all back home at the end of M Train, pulling on her black watch cap and buttoning her oversized coat, heading out once again in search of “the perfect cup of joe.”
As John Coltrane sang it: “seems to be a longer ride each time on the blue train.”
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.