M Train
by Patti Smith

"Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is."

Patti Smith doesn’t tend to what we think. She has been underappreciated as a poet and artist and unfairly parodied as an unkempt, drugged-up punk rocker. However, these are mere shadows of misperception that die hard, yet never worn by the artist. Gratefully in M Train, Smith’s memory train, the self-proclaimed “map of her life,” a genuine image takes center stage.

Her absorbing memoir unfolds they way we remember things—disordered, dreamlike, and driven by desire and quandary. Smith travels the globe, sometimes after jobs or at a request, but often like a treasure hunter where the booty is much more meaningful. She rescues Saint-Laurent prison stones to pay homage at Jean Genet’s grave. She finds herself in the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who served as childhood guides into a life of creativity. She joins a pilgrimage to Tangier honoring, among things, the beat poets. Some journeys take mere minutes to complete, while others require multiple attempts over decades, but each is accomplished with a Polaroid camera in hand that serves both artistry and memory.

When Smith is invited to the Continental Drift Club (CDC), honoring Alfred Wegener who proposed the eponymous theory that at one time the world was a single land mass but had split and drifted apart, we might wonder why a poet-songwriter was asked to join a crowd composed chiefly of scientists. However, the romanticism that binds poet and scientist to their ideals is inseparable in its passion and focus.

Comedy and joy exist within the pages, but the topic of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, must be tackled, along with the close and just as sudden death of her brother. She deals honestly with the love, life, and loss. If life is for the living, then death is left for us to sort through as well. These loses seem to have sent the author on a two-decade road trip for solutions. At odd intervals, beauty, magic, and abandonment are drawn upon the map of her life like Tarot cards.

Patti Smith is obsessed with literature and coffee, both coursing through the veins of her narrative. Each passage is a poignant diary entry, including sketches of dialogue like street conversations that you furtively monitor. Not as accessible as the award-winning Just Kids, the words in M Train form poetry to become lost inside of—always the short form, compact and soulful. She doesn’t intend to be confessional, but there are many nuggets of truth here. Meanwhile she haunts coffee houses like a spirit, and books pile at her feet.

The simple thread throughout this essential guide to an artist's life is: Where will she find her next coffee? Slightly larger but no less essential is: Where will she call home? She doesn't avoid the spirit/animal needs of us humans. Both the next sip of java and the discovery and reconstruction of a Rockaway bungalow chart the formation of the heart. Like the TV murder mysteries she’s drawn to, she’s solving a puzzle, burrowing to the root with much hope but no particular expectation. In photographs, Patti Smith seems to scowl at us, but more honestly she probably isn’t looking at or thinking of us at all. She’s composing her next words—words that help unlock the secrets of life and death. Let's hope they keep coming for some time.

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