Review: M Train

When Just Kids--Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1960s and '70s New York City--surprised the literary world and won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction, it changed the way many perceived her artistry. She was not just a poet rocker from the grassroots punk club scene and former lover of Sam Shepard. Instead, she proved to be a deliberate, observant, refreshing writer; M Train, her new memoir of musings and reminiscences about her life and travels, confirms it. No longer just a kid inhaling the artistic energy of New York, Smith is now in her late 60s and mostly alone. She lost Mapplethorpe; her much-loved husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith; and her supportive brother, Todd--all in their 40s when they died. Her son and daughter are grown and straddling 30. "How did we get so damn old, I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair," she reflects in her Greenwich Village apartment. "I [miss] that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown." Writing is her solace. Coffee is her fuel. Her apartment is a mess of manuscript drafts and unfinished canvases, but it is a temple to "the centrality of work in a life.... Here is joy and neglect. A little mescal. A little jacking off, but mostly just work."

Drifting between the present and the past, M Train is stitched from Smith's memories and journals of travels and coffee houses around the world--especially her regular café, 'Ino on Bedford Street in the Village. Her journeys take her to Genet's prison in French Guiana, Mishima's Tokyo, Kahlo's and Rivera's Coyoacán, Bowles's Tangiers--and to Far Rockaway in Queens, where she impulsively buys a rundown bungalow near the boardwalk before Hurricane Sandy nearly blows it away. Armed with books of writers who influenced her, she looks for inspiration and comfort in Sebald, Murakami, Bolaño, even a kids' biography of her first hero, Davy Crockett. Packing is easy: "black jacket dungarees underwear 4 tee shirts 6 pairs of bee socks Polaroid film packs Land 250 Camera black watch cap tin arnica graph paper moleskin Ethiopian cross." Often alone in hotel rooms, she binges on her favorite detective movies and TV shows. She frequently misplaces belongings--glasses, coats, cameras, books, photos, notebooks--but she has learned to take loss in stride.

Illustrated with several of her signature Polaroids, M Train is an affirmative, meandering story of a life shaken by tragedy but also buttressed with moments of joy and discovery. She embraces what she has and what she had. At one point she reflects on her travels: "I just wanted to get lost, become one with somewhere else, slip a wreath on a steeple top solely because I wished it." With each new book or song or poem, Smith adds another wreath to her already stout steeple. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Patti Smith follows her smash NBA-winning Just Kids with an equally accomplished, more melancholic, memoir of life and loss.

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