Rock Reads: M Train

Smith Memoir Intricate, Rewarding

Maggie Grimason
3 min read
A Portal is Opened
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Patti Smith’s latest memoir is an offering for those who are in love with books. M Train seems crafted for the reader who has experienced the magic of a perfect piece of literature, one that makes good on the promise that all books propose—to transport the reader to another world, to provide a real and tangible escape from the shackles of time, the clumsiness of life and the tragedies that can’t be imbued with meaning. M Train both supposes and affirms that this escape isn’t purely metaphorical. In opening a book, Smith suggests, a portal is opened. In the memoir, which follows 2010’s vastly different Just Kids, Smith examines her life through the literary works that have impressed themselves upon her. She orbits certain memories, conjures them through ritual and filters them through the feeling of the particular book which invokes them.

M Train follows Smith through the long course of a “light yet lingering malaise.” There is a surprising emphasis here on what appears to be routine—the countless cups of black coffee, the same walks to the same haunts, feeding the cats, sardines consumed over the sink—all of which may leave readers with the impression that the book is without an arc, that there’s no real action. “It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” is a mantra repeated again and again by Smith and the obscure figures who populate her dreams. But the crux here is that it’s not easy to write about nothing because nothing is nothing. In Smith’s world everything is colored by immense meaning. The challenge of the writer is to extract it. There are no frivolous words, no spare sentiments. As the pages progress, a world full of habit and poetic liturgy is established and it becomes apparent that every seemingly menial cup of coffee or Polaroid snap carries tremendous philosophical weight. Writing this memoir has provided a return for the author and in M Train she attempts to reverse the march of time and reclaim the tremendous moments, people and even jackets that she has lost in nearly 70 years of life.

M Train both diminishes the myth of Patti Smith and expands it. She gives readers full access to her life and its most mundane details. She writes beautifully of the light during a visit to Sylvia Plath’s grave, but also about how badly she needed to pee while there. She skillfully evokes the feeling she had peering down a vacant street in French Guiana, just the same, she remarks on how her hand brushes the crusty edge of where her cat has vomited in her bed. Yet, Smith doesn’t seem preoccupied with self-glorification; this book is about those people—authors like Jean Genet and Osamu Dazai, explorers, friends and her deceased husband, Fred—who have figured prominently in her life. It is the nuance of this memoir, Smith’s deft way with words and structure that braids each strand of memory into a cohesive whole that is remarkable. A singular portal into Smith’s past is created and we’re completely pulled into and transported by it. In M Train, Patti Smith conquers time before she wanders into the landscape of yet another memory and, like a scene in her book, we’re left watching the empty space she’s left, wishing she could stay.
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