M Train

M Train
By Patti Smith
[Alfred A. Knopf]

Although she’s known primarily as a musician, protopunk priestess Patti Smith has always dwelt in the DMZ of The Western Lands where poetry, prose and music overlap. In truth, Patti has always really been a writer who just so happened to (deftly and passionately) perform her verses in song. So no one was that surprised a few years back when Smith’s memoir of her cohabitation with transgressive photographer Robert Mapplethorpe received heaps of much-deserved critical praise and awards – most notably the National Book foundation’s 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction. Just Kids really was that good.

But Smith’s second memoir, M Train, is even better.

Unlike the somewhat conventional linear narrative of Just Kids, M Train is more a compendium of vignettes or dreamscapes. The running thread, of course, is Smith’s life.

Smith’s primary vocation has always been that of a poet. And her poetry always read like prose – if that makes any sense. This is to say that Smith’s verses, although not constrained by the encumbrances of sentence/paragraph structure, always read like stories. Through her poems, Patti told stories that the reader could, ahem, hear.

With M Train, Smith has adroitly focused her poetic gift to produce languid prose that is more or less conventional – although not encumbered by the strictures of linearity decreeing that a story should begin at point A and end at point Z with no detours in between. M Train’s is something of a travelogue that transcends not only geographical space, but time, consciousness and even subjectivity as well. The thing is, Smith is such a skilled sculptor of words that the book’s hodgepodge of various scenes from a life merge seamlessly. M Train is high art without affectation or pretentiousness. The reader is never bewildered or bored.

Smith has spent a lifetime of studying the masters, achieving mastery in the process. Through her mystical, parasocial relationships with the long passed artists and writers that haunt her dreams, it’s as if Smith is sharing an elevated, decentered living space with the immortal souls who shaped her voice. And Smith is an entertaining tour guide for the reader. This may sound like hokum but, well, you’ve just gotta read it.

Chief among Smith’s ghosts are Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet – along with the spectral presences she knew in their mortal forms like William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll and, especially, her departed husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, “my human angel from Detroit.” Smith gives voice and/or breathes life into these ghosts.

But M Train is anything but incense and peppermints, mysticism-for-mysticism’s sake nonsense. It’s fun, funny and touching – sometimes all at the same time. Patti is a wise and interesting old bird with a lot of amusing stories to share. She absolutely loves coffee and detective shows. She has a reverence for objects, especially furniture. Smith is (endearingly) very much the old school, analog type. And she has the money to go wherever and do whatever she wants – wherever her muse takes her and when she damn well pleases, thank you. Amusingly (and again endearingly). Patti enjoys luxury products and gourmet foods here and there, too. She is a woman of the (old) world.

You’re never exactly sure where M Train is going to take you next. But with a tour guide like this, who cares? Smith has a languorous style that is intimate and engaging. Its cadence lulls the reader into a trancelike state with a rhythm that evokes Camus and Bowles. M Train’s journey is more a process of becoming rather than an explication of mere being and beingness. The trip itself is the destination. And with Smith at the helm, getting there is both enlightening and fun.