Part memoir, part elegy, part reverie. M Train, by Patti Smith, is a captivating look at a working artist’s inspiration, fodder, obsessions, and processes.
I’d known of Patti Smith for a long time (if only mostly because she wrote Because the Night, a staple song I’ve seen Springsteen perform often over the years). A seed of interest bloomed in my brain after listening to her fascinating interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
What struck me was the way Smith spoke: she’s an original thinker, unburdened by clichés, erudite without pretension, and wholly generous in spirit. This too, encapsulates M Train.
Cafés are Patti’s “portal” to writing — a place where she communes with her art, her obsessions, and those she’s lost over brown toast, olive oil, and copious cups of coffee. Patti almost opened her own café once: she went so far as to put down a security deposit and renovate only to abandon her dream to follow a boy (Fred “Sonic” Smith) to Michigan.
Given to quests and ritual, Patti plucks stones from a notorious penal colony in northwest French Guiana to present to poet Jean Genet who “aspired” to be incarcerated there only to “fail” when the prison closed. She visits the graves of Japanese authors; she photographs Sylvia Plath’s grave several times. She buys a dilapidated bungalow sight unseen in Rockaway Beach months before Hurricane Sandy annihilated the coast. (Her tiny bungalow survives, requiring major repairs.)
This book is fascinating and layered. It’s more melancholy stream-of-consciousness than memoir, a fever dream chronicling an artistic funk at age 66.
Some passages are dense with oblique references to writers I’ve never heard of, much less read. Almost ethereally ruminative, I found some of the imagery difficult to penetrate, but with Patti, I sense that doesn’t matter: you absorb what you can, obsess on it for a bit, and move on to a new fascination. After all, as she says, “All doors are open to the believer.”
— December, 2015
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