Review: ‘M Train’ by Patti Smith

M Train. Patti Smith. Knopf. 253 pages. $25.
M Train. Patti Smith. Knopf. 253 pages. $25.

Patti Smith’s intimate and elegantly crafted book of essays opens with a dream, a conversation she’s having in a borderlands café with a cowboy who is spare and thoughtful with his philosophizing. “ But we keep on going,” he says, as if they had been speaking for quite some time, “fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. It’s an addiction, like playing the slots, or a game of golf.” Eventually, Smith responds with, “I’ve been here before, haven’t I?”

Of course she has, repetitively, through the course of her 68 years. As a child, a woman and an acclaimed artist, she has long reflected on the power of invention and how it shapes a life. Her writing moves effortlessly between past and present, both Smith’s and that of the scholars and makers who have inspired her and with whom she feels a kinship — the Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, the poet Rimbaud, or Alfred Wegener, the first scientist to present the idea of continental drift. As Smith slips in and out of reverie, the effect is one of a motionless travel, and throughout her journeys, real and imagined, she considers what it means to endure the hardships fed to us by time.

For Smith, who kicks off Miami Book Fair on Sunday, this means following her wild and associative mind, a sort of thinking that seams the unremarkable with the sublime and offers her a way to absorb her own losses, how they trail her like “a looming continuum of calamitous skies. . . . Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.”

At the heart of M Train is the careful braid the author makes between everyday matters and her lyrical take on how art offers a form of sustenance. In the aptly titled Changing Channels, Smith shifts back and forth between the thousands of New Year’s revelers streaming home from the ball-drop in Times Square to her quiet city apartment, where she is composing a 100-line poem, a hecatomb, for the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, whom she mourns because the “loss of him and his unwritten [denies] us at least one secret in the world.”

A few paragraphs later, while taking a break on her front stoop, some kids stagger by and ask her what time it is. “ ‘Time to puke,’ ” Smith says matter-of-factly. The next day she’s talking to her remote control and drawing a rather succinct line between literature and her beloved crime shows. “Yesterday’s poets are today’s detectives. They spend a life sniffing out the hundredth line, wrapping up a case, and limping exhausted into the sunset. They entertain and sustain me.”

To Smith, the constellation of human experience is as valued in Jane Eyre as it is in Law & Order — at times, we are dreaming about the high plains even as we clean up after the cats and try to figure out where we left our wallet.

Loss is everywhere in these pages. In what she deems the “Valley of Lost Things,” Smith leaves behind much: a treasured novel; her journal; photographs of Sylvia Plath’s grave, gleaming in autumn; a favorite black coat Smith has imbued with mystical properties. In Mexico, at the blue house of Frida Kahlo, Smith has left her memory of the faces she sang to; at the boardwalk on Rockaway Beach in New Jersey, she forgets a vintage Polaroid camera on a bench.

Her photographs appear throughout the book like ghosts, dim and unadorned, a way of seeing how Smith’s imagination elevates the humble objects she cherishes. A silver thread also works its way through her stories, her memories of her late husband, the guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, whose wisdom she grieves for and celebrates.

“Not all dreams need to be realized,” he tells her many years ago.

The book’s final essays are, in part, a testimony to his words because they dwell deeply on how the mind's fires can light a way toward hope. “I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world,” writes Smith. “I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. .. . . I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. . . . But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.”

Emma Trelles is the author of ‘Tropicalia,’ winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize.

Meet the author

Who: Patti Smith

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College; $15;