M Train / Patti Smith

Patti Smith first became well-known as a musician in the 1970s, merging poetry and rock into a number of successful albums. While she still turns out the occasional record, Smith is probably best known now as an author. In 2010, she won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a book that chronicled her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late sixties and seventies. M Train is another work of nonfiction, one in which she describes a year in her life. It also includes reflections on the past, her dreams, as well as the craft of writing and artistic creation. The opening sentence sets the stage and explains what is to follow: “It’s not easy writing about nothing.” Yet in describing the randomness of a year in her life, the puzzle pieces assemble to provide fascinating revelations about Smith’s personality and history.

Bohemian is a good word to describe Patti Smith. Clearly influenced by the Beat Generation, though she came of age after the fact, she is the progeny of that literary tradition. In this book, using self-reflection and the landscape of memory, she sets out to “remember everything and write it all down.” And while the story is centered around her life in Greenwich Village, she easily shifts between dreams and reality, past and present. There are the big moments of her life shared with her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and the trips they shared before his death. But mostly, it is the mundane activities of her daily life that are highlighted. One section of the book she describes as “an aria to a coat,” another as “a requiem for a café.” Who would have guessed Smith was a member of an Arctic explorer’s society, that she compulsively takes Polaroids of the places she visits, and loves to watch detective shows on TV.

M Train is a book about nothing, and yet it is about everything important in Smith’s life. Reading it is like sitting down with this artist in a café over a cup of coffee and spending hours captivated by her remarks. She is a woman who has always lived and dreamed “outside the lines.” In one of her dreams, she asks the spirit of Osamu Dazai, a renowned Japanese writer: “What is nothing?” He answers: “It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror.” This book is Smith’s attempt to take the reader to that important place of nothingness.

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