Slight in volume but vast in meaning and intricacy.
From its opening lines, Patti Smith’s latest presents itself as a gorgeously abstract scattershot of different sense and places from the lauded singer’s four-plus decades making captivating and often heart-wrenching art. M Train is location-based writing at its most poetic and captivating, tinged at times by the warm glow of nostalgia but also often by the weight of memory.
Smith writes with a veteran ease that makes the places she’s describing feel exactly how she intends. New York’s Café ‘Ino feels like home for the reader just as it was for Smith. Her background in poetry and spoken word is a wonderful tool here, although the book is written in a more prosaic style it still benefits tremendously from her ability to evoke a mood and capture a setting without simply rattling off every miniscule detail.
Even her description of the Michigan town she lived in with her family (including deceased husband Fred Smith, whose shadow hangs heavily over much of M Train) is mesmerizing. At times it feels like she exists on a wholly different planet or plane of consciousness, but she always grounds her reflections in enough reality to preserve the connective tissue.
“…I would stop at the lot behind the fish-and-tackle store, a simple, whitewashed cement outpost. To me it looked like Tangier, though I had never been there. I sat on the ground in the corner surrounded by low white walls, shelving real time, free to rove the smooth bridge connecting past and present. My Morocco.” she writes.
Smith writes of discovering Haruki Murakami and ravenously devouring books like A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore and there’s a clear link between the two, even though Smith is older and was published well before Murakami. His surreal, first-person writing style and keen eye for the interactions between places and people are a clear influence here, though obviously with writing so personal it’s impossible to lose the anchor to Smith.
Included in the book are selected black-and-white photos taken by Smith at the locations she writes about. Unlike some memoirs which lump those into one section they largely serve here as bookends that provide physical confirmation of the lyrical imagery she has provided. Particularly arresting are the shots of Frida Kahlo’s bed, a post-Sandy Rockaway Beach, and the grave of Sylvia Plath masked by a light dusting of snow. Smith has a knack for composition and balancing light, so while the images do feel a bit amateurish they are undeniably captivating.
M Train is slight in volume but vast in meaning and intricacy, it’s the kind of book where completely different aspects of a passage can hit you equally deeply depending on the context and mindset of your reading. In a late passage where Smith is describing something as seemingly simple as her father’s background makes his being born in a steel town poignant and mystical, before veering into the more ephemeral qualities that made him tick.
“My father was born in the shadows of the Bethlehem Steel Mill as the noon whistle blew. Thus he was born, in accordance with Nietzsche, at the appointed hour when certain individuals are granted the ability to grasp the mystery of the eternal recurrence of all things. My father’s mind was beautiful. He seemed to see all philosophies with equal weight and wonder,” she writes.
M Train is sure to resonate with anyone familiar with Smith’s work, but it’s just as important to those unfamiliar with her legacy. Even those who know little of her personal history will find themselves struck by her masterful writing and the universality with which she captures everything from grief to the frustration of seeing your favorite table at your daily coffee haunt occupied.