Review: Patti Smith – “M Train”

M TrainM Train by Patti Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is poetic in itself. Patti circles her known ground, her home, while venturing to her local café and abroad, to places she has not visited before as well as those known by her. Her way of writing here is familiar to those who have read her seminal book of herself and Robert Mapplethorpe. Here, she writes much of her former husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, who has died.

Theirs is a story of love, friendship and travel; this entire book is focused on travel, and Patti writes well of it. Here is an example, from the start of the book:

IT’S NOT SO EASY writing about nothing. That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream. Vaguely handsome, intensely laconic, he was balancing on a folding chair, leaning backwards, his Stetson brushing the edge of the dun-colored exterior of a lone café. I say lone, as there appeared to be nothing else around except an antiquated gas pump and a rusting trough ornamented with a necklace of horseflies slung above the last dregs of its stagnant water. There was no one around, either, but he didn’t seem to mind; he just pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes and kept on talking. It was the same kind of Silverbelly Open Road model that Lyndon Johnson used to wear.

Cowpoke. I like that non-gendered version of “cowboy”.

She writes about her every day, in a way that is not meant to impress; I think so, anyway – if she IS trying to impress, I’m impressed by not being touched that way. Or any other way:

FOUR CEILING FANS spinning overhead. The Café ’Ino is empty save for the Mexican cook and a kid named Zak who sets me up with my usual order of brown toast, a small dish of olive oil, and black coffee. I huddle in my corner, still wearing my coat and watch cap. It’s 9 a.m. I’m the first one here. Bedford Street as the city awakens. My table, flanked by the coffee machine and the front window, affords me a sense of privacy, where I withdraw into my own atmosphere. The end of November. The small café feels chilly. So why are the fans turning? Maybe if I stare at them long enough my mind will turn as well. It’s not so easy writing about nothing. I can hear the sound of the cowpoke’s slow and authoritative drawl. I scribble his phrase on my napkin. How can a fellow get your goat in a dream and then have the grit to linger? I feel a need to contradict him, not just a quick retort but with action. I look down at my hands. I’m sure I could write endlessly about nothing. If only I had nothing to say.

Her words on finding a calm, lone and quiet spot in a café, anyone can relate to.

In 1965 I had come to New York City from South Jersey just to roam around, and nothing seemed more romantic than just to sit and write poetry in a Greenwich Village café.

It’s rare to find a language like Patti’s, which is so easily read and at the same time poetic, even though she writes of her everyday, which is not so everyday as she covers stuff ranging from her cats to her incessant love for Roberto Bolaño.

Such a sad portion of injustice served to beautiful Bolaño, to die at the height of his powers at fifty years old. The loss of him and his unwritten denying us at least one secret of the world.

[…]

I had spent the past two years reading and deconstructing Bolaño’s 2666—swept back to front and from every angle. Before 2666, The Master and Margarita had eclipsed all else, and before reading all of Bulgakov there was an exhausting romance with everything Wittgenstein, including fitful attempts to break down his equation.

I love how she writes of her dead husband, Fred:

My yearning for him permeated everything—my poems, my songs, my heart.

[…]

Despite the heat, Fred wore a shirt and a tie. The men seemed to respect him, regarding him without irony. He had that effect on other men.

[…]

Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license but couldn’t afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands.

And yes, she’s not only flim-flam, I mean, poetic in the sense that she, like many others who try too hard to be poetic, is really good at massaging and churning language, but in a kind of Mayakovsky-meets-Burroughs way. Realistic, but not ongoing in a way that makes you wish it’d end soon. For example:

M—What did you two talk about? I asked.
—I really can’t say for sure, he only spoke French.
—How did you communicate? —Cognac.

…and:

Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.

Goes to show that Patti is a sucker for detective stuff. Partly on Swedish stuff:

On Christmas Eve I present the cats with catnip-enhanced mice toys and exit aimlessly into the vacant night, finally landing near the Chelsea Hotel at a movie theater offering a late showing of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I buy my ticket and a large black coffee and a bag of organic popcorn at the corner deli, and then settle in my seat in the back of the theater. Just me and a score of slackers, comfortably isolated from the world, attaining our own brand of holiday well-being, no gifts, no Christ child, no tinsel or mistletoe, only a sense of complete freedom. I liked the looks of the movie. I had already seen the Swedish version without subtitles but hadn’t read the books, so now I would be able to piece together the plot and lose myself in the bleak Swedish landscape.

I like how she weaves in a side-thought of materialism, much like humans think, a bit like Montaigne and people like he have thought and uttered in different ways, since forever:

I did once sit in the chair of Roberto Bolaño when visiting his family’s home in the seacoast town of Blanes, in northeast Spain. I immediately regretted it. I had taken four pictures of it, a simple chair that he superstitiously carried with him from one dwelling place to another. It was his writing chair. Did I think that sitting in it would make me a better writer?

I love her recollection of meeting Bobby Fischer on Iceland:

When I returned I received a call from a man identifying himself as Bobby Fischer’s bodyguard. He had been charged with arranging a midnight meeting between Mr. Fischer and myself in the closed dining room of the Hótel Borg. I was to bring my bodyguard, and would not be permitted to bring up the subject of chess. I consented to the meeting and then crossed the square to the Club NASA where I recruited their head technician, a trustworthy fellow called Skills, to stand as my so-called bodyguard. Bobby Fischer arrived at midnight in a dark hooded parka. Skills also wore a hooded parka. Bobby’s bodyguard towered over us all. He waited with Skills outside the dining room. Bobby chose a corner table and we sat face-to-face. He began testing me immediately by issuing a string of obscene and racially repellent references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants.

—Look, you’re wasting your time, I said. I can be just as repellent as you, only about different subjects. He sat staring at me in silence, when finally he dropped his hood.
—Do you know any Buddy Holly songs? he asked.

For the next few hours we sat there singing songs. Sometimes separately, often together, remembering about half the lyrics. At one point he attempted a chorus of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in falsetto and his bodyguard burst in excitedly.

—Is everything all right, sir?
—Yes, Bobby said.
—I thought I heard something strange.
—I was singing. —Singing?
—Yes, singing.

Between her marathons of detective TV-series, funny stuff happened:

During a break between Detective Frost and Whitechapel, I decided to have a farewell glass of port in the honesty bar adjacent to the library. Standing by the elevator I suddenly felt a presence beside me. We turned at the same moment and stared at one another. I was stunned to find Robbie Coltrane, as if I’d willed him, some days ahead of the Cracker marathon. —I’ve been waiting for you all week, I said impetuously. —Here I am, he laughed. I was so taken aback that I failed to join him in the elevator and promptly returned to my room, which seemed subtly yet utterly transformed, as if I had been drawn into the parallel quarters of a proper tea-drinking genie.

On William S. Burroughs:

I last saw him in Lawrence, Kansas. He lived in a modest house, with his cats, his books, a shotgun, and a portable wooden medicine cabinet locked away. He sat at his typewriter; the one with the ribbon so used up that sometimes only impressions of words made it to the page. He had a miniature pond with darting red fish and tin cans set up in his backyard. He enjoyed a little target practice and was still a great shot. I purposely left my camera in its sack and stood quietly observing as he took aim. He was somewhat dried and bent, yet he was beautiful. I looked at the bed where he slept and watched the curtains on his window move ever so slightly. Before I said good-bye we stood together before a print of William Blake’s miniature of The Ghost of a Flea. It was an image of a reptilian being with a curved yet powerful spine enhanced with scales of gold.

—That’s how I feel, he said.

I was buttoning my coat. I wanted to ask why but I didn’t say anything. The ghost of a flea. What was William telling me? My coffee cold, I gesture for another, sketching possible answers then abruptly crossing them out. Instead I opt to follow William’s shadow snaking a winding medina bathed in flickering images of freestanding arthropods. William the exterminator, drawn to a singular insect whose consciousness is so highly concentrated that it conquers his own.

Dialogue that is pretty:

—You have misplaced joy, he said without hesitation. Without joy, we are as dead.

—How do I find it again?

—Find those who have it and bathe in their perfection.

There are a lot of photographs throughout the book.

And I love how she turns out to have boundaries on what constitutes great writing…somewhat:

There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. For one thing I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept. […] The truth is that there is only one kind of masterpiece: a masterpiece.

On meeting needs for money:

September was ending and already cold. I was heading up Sixth Avenue and stopped to buy a new watch cap from a street vendor. As I pulled it on an old man approached me. His blue eyes burned and his hair was white as snow. I noticed that his wool gloves were unraveling and his left hand was bandaged. —Give me the money you have in your pocket, he said. Either I am being tested, I thought, or I have wandered into the opening of a modern fairy tale. I had a twenty and three singles, which I placed in his hand. —Good, he said after a moment, and then returned the twenty. I thanked him and continued on, more buoyant than before.

What she always consumes for breakfast:

I poured some more black coffee, reached for some dark bread, and dipped it into a small dish of olive oil.

Some on Plath’s masterpiece “Ariel”:

I closed my eyes and searched for a stored image of my copy of Ariel, given to me when I was twenty. Ariel became the book of my life then, drawing me to a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart. With little effort I visualized my Ariel perfectly. Slim, with faded black cloth, that I opened in my mind, noting my youthful signature on the cream endpaper. I turned the pages, revisiting the shape of each poem.

This is a really good book. Not because it’s swift but because it’s just great. I hope Patti releases new stuff very, very soon.

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