M Train

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M Train
272 pages; Knopf
A survivor's grace permeates Patti Smith's heartbreaking memoir/meditation/artist's notebook, M Train (Knopf). Unlike her earlier National Book Award–winning Just Kids, which told the relatively linear story of her passionate friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe when the two were young and struggling in late 1960s and '70s New York, M Train loops and swirls through dreams, memories, images, journeys and acts of mourning in and around Smith's 66th year. Or, as she puts it, "Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell."             

Like a modern Antigone, Smith attempts to honor her many dead—her husband, Fred; Jean Genet; her brother; Frida Kahlo; the writer Osamu Dazai; her parents. For Smith, who regards herself as one of "the gone Beats' orphaned children," artistic forebears and heroes leave behind as deep a void as family members. But in this enchanting and enchanted book, the dead exist right alongside the living, still haunting Smith years, or even decades, after they're gone. We get vivid glimpses of her marriage to Fred, nearly 20 years after his death ("I could feel Fred closer than ever," she writes). They loved to live according to what they called "the clock with no hands"—talking all night, driving aimlessly, sleeping all day in motels. She rests in Diego Rivera's bedroom and is so moved by the energy there that a song about his wife, Kahlo, comes to her whole. While visiting Sylvia Plath's grave, she has "the uncontrollable urge to urinate" on it, as if to summon Plath back to life. The book feels like a long, poetic letter directly from the brain of your smartest, oddest, bravest friend, the one who has ventured so much further than most of us dare to.            

Smith's life in the present is also riddled with losses, albeit of a more mundane kind. In her travels she loses photos, books, a beloved coat, a camera. The café where she writes every day—always in the same chair, always ordering brown toast with olive oil and black coffee—closes. An eccentric and erudite club she's a member of, honoring Alfred Wegener, the theorist of continental drift, disbands. She falls in love with and buys a house in the Rockaways only to see it severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. She withstands all these losses by reading, roaming, brooding, and sometimes checking in to a hotel in London to binge-watch British mysteries. One wouldn't necessarily know from reading M Train that it was written by a rock icon; we see little of Smith's public life. Instead, she opens her extraordinary heart and soul to us, holding nothing back and never permitting vanity to intrude. "I love you, I whispered to all, to none," she writes. "I'm going to remember everything and then I'm going to write it all down." It's a gift, this record of beloved absences, to which one can only respond, thank you.
— Stacey D'erasmo