Before praising M Train, I have to add a disclaimer: Patti Smith is one of my favourite artists and a huge influence. Horses is one of the all-time greatest rock n roll records and entered my life at a pivotal point where, like it was for many, it was life changing. Babel has moments of sheer transcendence, a book of poetry that sits on the shelf above my desk for inspiration; it is a very well-thumbed and battered copy that I had the good fortune to have autographed. Crackpuppy covers the brilliant "Power to the People" from Dream of Life and every time I sing it or hear it, it transports me. Just Kids is one of the best memoirs ever penned, wonderfully written, galvanizing and heartbreaking. Despite owning all the albums, I purchased the collection Land simply to savour the cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry," a mystical reinvention.
I am a fan.
I like to think that my admiration of Smith's body of work is discerning. There are albums that are lacklustre and writings that drift into pretension or whimsy. Smith operates without a filter and, while that allows for flights of brilliance, it can also be dangerous.
M Train flows somewhere in the space where poetry and memoir intersect. It is filled with digressions, dreams and observations both mundane and illuminating. Everyone who reads it will probably have their own deeply personal interpretation, be moved by different passages, have an entry point unique to themselves and their own current life experience. When I re-read M Train, and I will re-read it, I will have another reaction, find new insights and gut emotions.
This reading of M Train felt like a meditation on grief. M Train begins with the sentence
It's no so easy writing about nothing.
M Train continues with Smith's struggle to write, to create. She writes about her personal life, her talismans, the difficulty of communicating, loss, her travels and quests. She references obscure authors, literary writers, television detective series, and scientists. While structured, loosely, around her search for the perfect coffee and café environment, a sense of home, the words keep circling back to her memories of her late husband Fred Smith. The memories are haunting and M Train becomes a portrait, a evocation, of that limbo one finds oneself in when experiencing extreme grief and shock. "Nothing" can refer to the trivial but it also refers to absence, to loss.
It is like reading someone's extremely well-written journal, guileless innocence mixed with a desire to record and immortalize. I began making notes - and M Train contains many passages about the process of writing, anyone with any aspirations will be riveted. appalled and delighted - of important phrases, ideas and revelations. I soon realized it was an unwieldy list, almost every page, and that quoting out of context had value only for myself. Smith opens her heart, her inquisitive and indiscriminate process, and invites the reader in.
M Train is not a conventional narrative and, depending on one's tastes, may slip over into pretension and whimsy. But when the themes and symbols - and to a certain extent the plotlines - coalesce, it is stunningly beautiful and gorgeous on a level that fuses the intellectual with the primal. Patti Smith is not "writing about nothing," she is conjuring on a level of almost unbearable beauty.