When I read Patti Smith’s M Train (Random House, 2015), I kept coming back to one thing: a coat that she’s lost, a ragged, much-loved Commes Des Garçons coat given to her by a poet she knew. She wrote about how much she loved the coat, although it was worn and ill-fitting, and how much she’s thought about it since. She also wrote about how she had no idea how she lost it. As someone who is often lost in dreams myself, I understand that helpless losing of stuff, especially stuff that I love. I do it more often than I want, and there’s no getting around why: when you’re caught in a dream, reality tends to evaporate.
But in the place of the lost thing, a feeling of emptiness is left where the thing used to be, and this is what Patti Smith’s book is about. The center of the book is the fire that burnt in her head after reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That book too talks about the central aloneness of all human life.
For a while, Smith is obsessed with Murakami’s wishing well, the McGuffin in the middle of his book. While reading the Chronicle she wants to find that wishing well, but later realizes that the lot where the wishing well was located will be sold, and the well demolished. (Her chagrin is amusing and aching and relatable. There is nothing worse than a mystery left unresolved, especially in a book.) She travels to Japan anyway, shifting the personal purpose of her trip to visiting the grave of Akira Kurosawa. There’s a lot of visiting graves in Smith’s M Train, and perhaps this is her way of dancing around one of the purposes of this book: to meditate upon loss, especially the loss of one of her greatest loves, her husband, Fred.
There’s a line at the end of the book that implies that most of her memories of Fred are hers to keep without our eyes upon it, so what she writes is what she can bear to share. She writes of everything around his death except the moment of it. She writes memories from long ago, and memories of sitting on a beach knowing that he was in the sky — literally, learning to fly a plane while she and her son were on the ground. She writes of their trip to visit Jean Genet’s favorite penal colony in French Guiana, taking back with her a stone covered in the dirt of the floor that she wants to place in Genet’s hand. (But Genet, like so many other people Smith writes about, is dead by the time she goes to deliver the rock.)
What really to got me, reading M Train, was the unreliability of the narrator. Smith writes about loneliness and being alone, but in a small paragraph also implies that her life doesn’t let her be alone at all, and that loneliness might even be something she has to fight for. There’s a small paragraph embedded in thousands of words of solitary cafe-sitting that describes a frenetic journeying around the world — but the book lingers over the lonely times. As the dream cowpoke says to her in the very first line of Smith’s book, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.”
This line is also a metaphor. The people and things that come and go — her husband Fred, Lou Reed, her black coat, a moleskin notebook on a plane, her beloved and dogeared copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — disappear into a place she can’t follow, and all she can write about is the nothing they leave behind. How does she do it? By writing about her pursuit of what it means. Maybe this is all we can do — read about the path of one hand clapping when the other hand has gone away.
While reveling a little in her unreliable loneliness, Smith also drops words of beauty and history, and provides an excellent road map for how to be an old woman poet in this world. In the years she was writing she turned 66, and stops to sit on her front stoop and ponder what it means to be that age. She’s outlived so many friends, lost so many things, what can jolt her out of her torpor and get her moving forward?
For a while, the book is a routine but peaceful shuttle from Smith’s New York City townhouse to her cafe, Cafe Ino, and back again, but then the unthinkable happens — change. Smith follows her imagination’s path with a quixotic faithfulness, and when her favorite coffee server at Cafe Ino decided to open up a cafe at Rockaway Beach, she follows him. She realizes, when she reaches Rockaway Beach, that perhaps change has brought her something precious in return, a dream of a writer’s retreat near the waves, far from the routine that might, in some part, be wearying.
Smith’s attempt to build her Alamo, her retreat, are stymied by Hurricane Sandy, and her barista’s cafe has to close due to the storm, but this too is part of the road toward finding the positive side of loss. Does Smith get there in the end? The journey is delicate and dense and worth following, and I found it held some answers for me, too.