i recently read patti smith’s m train. the other night she was on the pbs newshour, and the interviewer mentioned that there is a level of grief over her late husband fred that permeates the writing. she said that it was not intentional, but that she carries fred and those that she has lost with her, and found that they make their way into her writing. there is a sort of undercurrent of grief in the book, but it doesn’t take center stage. it’s as if listening to a speaker with a hint of an accent. it’s at first noticeable but gets lost in the narrative and creeps in only occasionally. more than grief there is a sense that patti smith is honoring the memory of those she has lost, her memory. patti smith is somewhat of a professional appreciator. patti smith is a FAN. capitol F A N. patti smith spends a lot of her creative energy paying tribute to others. patti smith writes love letters and eulogies and thank you notes in her books and in her photographs. it’s something that i have always felt akin to: i am a FAN as well.
something that has also always resonated with me is her descriptive writing style. the devil and the gods are in the details. patti smith’s photographs and tales of objects are so powerful because she understands how these things are extensions of a person. how our clothing, our living and work spaces, our furniture, all of the little bric a brac that we keep around us represent us. these things are mementos and memento moris, relics and heirlooms and sign posts. part of what i loved so dearly about the documentary dream of life is that you got a glimpse into patti’s home and her world, and found it filled with so many cherished items. she would take each one out and caress it and tell its story as if it were a pet bird that she had rescued or that had been given to her by a loved one. patti smith treats her memories the same way: like little jewels that she takes out and polishes, holds up to the light and then carefully puts away.
i believe patti smith to be a person who is often overcome with nostalgia. a person who has a dream-like recollection of people and places and things that have left her. this is certainly my experience of memory: like a dream that i can walk into, with all of the strange sensations that come to us in dreams.
as patti says in m train: “we want things we cannot have. we seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. i want to hear my mother’s voice. i want to see my children as children. hands small, feet swift. everything changes. boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. please stay forever, i say to the things i know. don’t go. don’t grow.”
m train is not the linear story that just kids was, but something else. little vignettes, not unlike journal entries. it’s wonderful to spend time in patti smith’s world.