M Train by Patti Smith

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Patti Smith is a poet growing old with a mindful of memories. She has enough of them to fill M Train to the brim. Sifting through these remembrances is like rediscovering an old to-do list in the pocket of a pair of jeans—the accomplished, the forgotten, the seemingly mundane all jotted together in a faded mélange. Between the travels, discoveries, and cafes, there are piles of cat vomit and hurricanes that ravage New York. Let’s be clear: every observation is beautiful. Like a reel of Super 8 film, spliced and stitched together again, this collection of moments is incandescent because we see them through the poet’s eyes.

M Train is chiefly concerned with salvaging the pieces that, together, form a life entire. “The things I touched were living. My husband’s fingers, a dandelion, a skinned knee. I didn’t seek to frame these moments. They passed without souvenir,” Smith writes. Like her National Book Award-winning Just Kids, this book draws upon her real-life relationships and travels, from childhood to adulthood, New Jersey to Tangiers. As in Just Kids, photographs peer from between the paragraphs like open doors, an invitation to look inside not as voyeurs but as friends.

From chapter to chapter, Smith luxuriates over endless cups of coffee. In its barest sense, the book is a series of cups of coffee around the world, drunk between waking and sleep. But once the memoir has sunk in its claws, these rituals become a framework for more meaningful observations. What is a life, if not a pattern interrupted by occasional revelations or surprises?

Where Just Kids traced the linear progression of her decades-long friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her coming of age in 1970s New York City, M Train finds its footing in shared experiences. It’s the universal—not rock ‘n’ roll in particular—that haunts the reader most. The most moving passages aren’t brushes with icons (like Smith’s strange meeting with Bobby Fischer) or the spoils of musical fame, but her meditations on love, friendship, motherhood, and art’s rewards and challenges. Her travels to Tangiers are lovely not because they’re exotic, but because of her reverence for and friendship with the late Paul Bowles, whom she visited there just before his death.

Aging and loss transcend fame and geography. Smith whittles her prose down to the essentials: “He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine. Now he is gone.” Her one-liners can feel like a gut-punch and read like a Zen koan: “Why is it that we lose the things we love,” she writes, “and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth long after we’re gone?” These cavalier things are the framework Smith uses to measure her days.

There’s a long literary tradition of objects as stand-ins, as portals we can touch or taste that will transport us into other rooms and other lives. M Train wedges itself into that niche. In the back of Smith’s closet lies a chest filled with drawers of small treasures, “some sacred and some whose origins were entirely forgotten.” These amulets are a spell against time and loss. Smith’s materialism is a tribute to the things time took away, like her husband, MC5 member and odd bird Fred Sonic Smith, and the writer Jean Genet, upon whose grave she places a matchbox full of sand from the Saint-Laurent prison in French Guiana. The permanent things she can hold in her hands only highlight the people and things that she can’t. Her obsessions with other artists are a reckoning: what will she leave behind? What is a legacy, except the objects that furnished a life and the objects that life produced? “Home is a desk,” Smiths writes. “Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done. All the lost things that may one day call to me…”

On her fifty-seventh birthday, a poet friend gives Smith an “ill-fitting, unlined” Commes de Garçons overcoat, which disappears. In her characteristic prose, as playful as it is disorienting, Smith writes, “Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen. Have you seen my coat? It is black and absent of detail, with frayed sleeves and a tattered hem. Have you seen my coat? It is the dead speak coat.”

For one so concerned with the material world, Smith manages to lose a lot. She returns from Mexico with a perfect, smooth white stone from a La Huasteca mountain in her pocket, only to have it confiscated at customs; later, in the same Houston airport, she places her copy of The Windup Bird Chronicle, “a heavily marked-up paperback stained with coffee and olive oil, her traveling companion and the mascot of her resurging energy,” on a bathroom ledge, only to discover it missing once she’s boarded the plane to New York.

It takes a practiced hand to write interstitial moments that cohere, and Smith’s memories—accessed via dark roast and old fishing flies, novels and syndicated detective shows—manage just that. We weren’t there, but we are now; we’ve never been to a secret meeting of Continental Drift Club, which gathers to celebrate the late Alfred Wegener, but if we were admitted, we would see the odd goings-on as she does, rapt with fascination.

In the recurring dream that opens M Train, a laconic cowboy muses, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” The line troubles Smith throughout the book. From the get-go, there’s a question of worthiness: what’s something? What’s its inverse? M Train’s greatest reward, for a reader, is Smith’s unwillingness to bend to the dream-cowboy’s doubts. Even nothing has meaning—the found objects, the things remembered, the cups of coffee that mark our days better than clocks. “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down,” she writes on the last page. “An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café. That’s what I was thinking, in my dream, looking down at my hands.” Would that every tribute to a life lived sang so beautifully.

Linnie Greene is a writer, book critic, and independent bookseller at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, CA. She's written for the New York Times' Modern Love, Electric Literature, The Billfold, The Hairpin, and Hobart, where her essay received notable mention in the Best American Essays 2015. She tweets as @linnievii. More from this author →