Patti Smith’s 2015 M Train is a book that is more than close to the heart.
The structure of the book first appears superficially episodic, but it soon becomes clear that its organization is carefully controlled, with the text moving easily between the present and the past, and what is meaningful and what seems not as anything more than apparent nothingness. An obsession with nothingness pervades the book, but it is a nothingness that is not an emptiness, but a condition or situation which has not yet revealed its relevance or lesson. Her long chapter on “Mu (Nothingness)” is particularly masterful of this. “Some things are not lost but sacrificed.” (p. 242)”
Nothingness is frequently contrasted with loss. “We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation…. Please stay forever, I say to things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.” (p. 209)
I find it difficult to reconcile Smith’s preoccupation with, even insistence on, the constancy of the relevance of the past, as my own preference is to acknowledge and accept the past but to look, and direct my thoughts, to the present and the future. Although loss found in the past is inescapable, because it is an experience common to all, my kind of outlook thinks it unwise to dwell on loss. However, that is merely my approach, and hardly more valid than Smith’s.
“I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is.” (p. 233)
Nonetheless, there is truth, it seems to me, that “in time we often become one with those we once failed to understand.” (p. 170) I think it may also be true that “the dead regard us with curiosity.” (p. 186)
All of this is tied together by the use, from her home city of New York, of a setting with table and chair at a favoured café for the consumption of Smith’s particular physical dependency, which is coffee. It certainly isn’t food, for she hardly eats; but, so what. The equivalent existence of such a place and the manner in which it is favoured is, I would say, very common, and therefore has a kind of essential essence that is brought to bear on the uncommon. “All I needed for the mind was to be led to new stations. All I needed for the heart was to visit a place of greater storms.” (p. 168) And, as I also have also learned, “nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.” (p. 202)
The writing is excellent, and holds one’s attention, despite the occasional ramble into inscrutable territory. The reviews I afterwards read are not in the main from individuals who understand creative artists. For instance, there is criticism of Smith’s ability to move at will, to anywhere on the globe; but this is usually more a criticism of monetary success than of anyone’s ability to go to another place that holds an intellectual or emotional attraction.
Smith’s propensity to use the reading of books is a parallel to this type of travel. Books create their own world, and they are not divorced from dreams. Although she makes the point that “dream must defer to life,” (p. 165) more especially obvious when you are spilling some of the sake you are drinking. The disbelief of having to secure money to purchase another home is in the same category of envy. The matter is one of finding a place that is one’s own, rather than owning a place in which one stays.
And there are two propositions, which, I think, are also the crux of her earlier Just Kids. The first is: “How is it that we never completely comprehend our love for someone until they’re gone?” (p. 92) If I could resolve and then solve this condition, I may be happier; but I could not change the bittersweet awareness, and experience.
And the second is the nature of the effect of art and place on a person. “Why is it that we lose the things we love, and the things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone?” (p. 242) To allay this I think she proposes the understanding of the persistence in art and the artist of freedom of mind. And over this, at least, I have come to think, I have a certain kind of control and its guidance, emotional and actual.