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‘This is how I live, I am thinking’

Ellen Pilsworth

M Train cover

Patti Smith
M Train
£18.99 (hardback)
272 Pages
ISBN: 9781101875100

Musician, artist and writer Patti Smith’s prolificacy seems to increase with age. Only five years after her National Book Award-winning work, Just Kids, Smith has released her second memoir. Just Kids focused on her early years trying to make it as an artist in New York in the late ’60s, depicting her relationship with the artist Robert Maplethorpe (who passed away in 1989). A few years after the publication of this first memoir, she released the album Banga (2012), whose title track doggedly celebrates the fact that ‘we’re still here.’ In M Train – part memoir, part elegy, part psychedelic revelation – Smith shares the dregs of her brain, her life, and her coffee (and there is a lot of coffee). All this is interspersed with the beautiful black and white polaroids that Smith compulsively takes, wherever she goes. These images keep the book grounded, whilst also symbolising how absent things can remain present, in image or memory: one of the central ideas of the work. M Train careens with life, a train of thought moving so fast that an incautious reader can get lost. Take caution, reader, for not a word is to be missed.

Each word has been chosen with the precision of Smith’s artistic heroes. Her book has the vision of Blake, the authentic voice of Dylan, the wackiness of Frida Kahlo, and the pristine beauty of a Giotto fresco. It pays homage to other artists and writers who have driven Smith to create art herself, throughout her life, as well as to the people she has known and loved. At times her ‘platter filled with allusions’ can seem overwhelming, but this sticky web of associations and relations reflects Smith’s own way of viewing the world and its people: the idea behind the lyric ‘Paths that cross will cross again.’ Living or dead, known personally or not, there are many people with whom Smith regularly communes.

Like her song ‘Ghost Dance’, M Train resounds particularly with the voices of the dead. Smith dedicates parts of the work to certain figures upon whose deaths she has dwelt, for one reason or another. Some were lost in their mission, like the polar researcher Alfred Wegener. Some passed from illness, like the composer and writer Paul Bowles. Some took their own lives, like the writers Ryonosuke Akutagawa, Osamu Dazai, and Sylvia Plath. Some are still painfully mourned – and none more than her husband, Fred Smith. Indeed, it is his voice that we, and Smith, miss more and more as the book moves on. We see her carefully washing and laying out a pile of his shirts (discovered in the basement) or crying (on a plane in mid-flight), ‘Just come back. You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop travelling. I will wash your clothes.’ Though she remembers him as ‘my quiet man,’ his absence screams from every page.

Between these moments of bottomless grief, however, there is joy to be found too. Much joy. Smith breaks up her descriptions of her writerly ‘malaise’ with powerful moments of friendship, beauty, and childish excitement: finding and falling in love with a house on Rockaway beach that was to miraculously survive Hurricane Sandy (‘My little house, my Alamo’). Encountering a camel calf named Jimi Hendrix. Midnight conversations with her remote control. Her girlish love for the heroes of TV crime shows (especially The Killing), and her famous crush on David Tennant in Doctor Who. Patti Smith may have reached what can only be described as old age, but she presents herself as living a life still committed to the imaginative quests first embarked upon as a little child in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Now, she is a child with much experience, and still willing to experience.

M Train should appeal not only to those interested in Smith, but to all who are interested in the arduous processes of writing, of aging, of life itself – and their rewards. ‘Here is joy and neglect. A little mescal. A little jacking off, but mostly just work.
–– This is how I live, I am thinking.’

Ellen Pilsworth graduated in 2012 with a BA in English and German from The Queen’s College, Oxford. She is currently a PhD candidate in German at University College London, where she also teaches literary translation.