OCTOBER 23, 2015
AS A YOUNG WOMAN in the 1930s, M. F. K. Fisher traveled frequently from California to Europe and back again, often by herself. In that pre-jetliner age, the writer necessarily spent much of her time in the dining areas of ships and trains, eating alone. The sight of a solitary woman digging into a steak and downing an ale frequently drew concerned looks from other passengers, but Fisher — the godmother of all foodies — was not one to curb her appetite. “I order meals that are more typically masculine than feminine,” she wrote in her memoir The Gastronomical Me. “[…] if I must be alone, I refuse to be alone as if it were something weak and distasteful, like convalescence.”
What does it mean to be a woman alone? This question lies at the heart of M Train, the new book by poet, author, and singer Patti Smith. That, and the eternal query, Where’s the best place to get a good coffee?
A caffeine-fueled travelogue of first-person vignettes, M Train is Smith’s first book since 2010’s National Book Award–winning Just Kids. Honestly, I like M Train better.
Released 38 years after her debut book of poetry, Just Kids landed the punk pioneer firmly in the literary establishment. It follows a conventional narrative form (autobiography) — albeit about unconventional lives (Smith’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s). It’s a portrait of an era — 1970s New York — that is the subject of keen literary nostalgia (Garth Risk Hallberg is the latest writer to cash in on this craze). And it’s peopled with a who’s who of rock, art, and lit stars (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, Jackie Curtis, Tom Verlaine). In Just Kids, Patti positions herself via her relationships, particularly with men (Mapplethorpe, her band, her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith).
In M Train, Smith again looks mostly to male figures for inspiration, and again, she conjures ghosts. The book’s touchstones are either cultural heroes (Jean Genet, Alfred Wegener, Akira Kurosawa) whose graves she tracks down in search of talismans, or they’re lost loved ones, specifically Fred and her brother Todd, both of whom died in 1994. M Train is more an exercise in bookish necrophilia than in pop nostalgia. Smith’s muses are memories, or figures in dreams, or names in books. She shifts from past to present abruptly sometimes. Repeatedly, she apologizes for the bumpy ride. This is a book about the difficulty of writing itself. “It’s not so easy writing about nothing” is her opening line.
She’s kidding, of course — sort of. M Train is about many things, which is a way of being about no thing (but not nothing). For those of us who have perused Smith’s every utterance since she changed our teenage lives several decades ago, this collection of tenuously connected dreams and journeys reads more like the old Patti: discursive, fanciful, geeky, transgressive, just plain and delightfully weird. It’s a book that loses you and you get lost in, finding your own kernels of truth and resonance.
Smith, ever the shrewd one, has concocted the perfect marketing ploy: a book about sitting alone in cafés around the world and reading, wherein each chapter takes just about the right amount of time for digestion of a morning (or afternoon) brew. M Train embodies its subject; it’s the perfect book to take on the road and read in cafés. Here’s a good mirror-in-a-mirror exercise for some enterprising writer: Read M Train in every café that Smith writes about, on her various quests for her own literary ghosts; bring your Moleskine with you.
Except you can’t: Café ’Ino, the Greenwich Village eatery at which Smith has her own table in the first half of the book, shutters in the second half. Stunned, the poet takes the table and chair from its remains and brings them back to her nearby home, to join her other reliquaries. “My portal to where,” she calls them. The beach café founded by Zak, one of her favorite ’Ino baristas, gets wiped out by Hurricane Sandy — but not before the poet falls in love with its neighborhood, Rockaway Beach, and buys her own well-worn bungalow. The Alamo, as she calls her ocean-side retreat, somehow survives nature’s record gales, despite its aged, tattered frame.
M Train is about loss, how to cope with it, then rebuild. Like a child, its author craves permanence in objects. “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.” Widowed, with her children moved out, Smith has traded life on the road with a rock band for the solitary existence of a writer. She has sorrows, but no regrets. She sits at her table, in Paris, Mexico City, Tokyo, Venice Beach, Rockaway Beach; drinks her coffee; reads the pages; fills the pages. Or she lies in hotel rooms in London, watching marathons of detective shows for days. Or she wakes from dreams of cowboy philosophers, alone in her bed except for her cats, one of whom has thrown up on her pillow. Writing with precise detail in a flat, unashamed voice, she offers up unflattering personal details of herself as an absentminded flaneur. She walks through Washington Square Park, coffee spilled on her coat, “looking for landmarks no longer there.” Socks fall out of the cuffs of her unwashed pants and are picked up and handed to her by giggling kids.
Um, is Patti Smith a Crazy Cat Lady?
That archetype/stereotype — the older, single woman surrounded by her feline companions — is of course a contemporary iteration of a long line of lone-woman bogey-figures that are invoked to discourage women from lives of solitude: the witch, the spinster, the hag, the crazy woman in the attic, the lesbian aunt. Smith doesn’t think in such a gendered way. She merely looks for echoes of her own life struggles in more inspiring models, namely, the artists whose work has fed her. The fact that most of those models are men could mean she’s male-identified, or it could just mean that men have been more often allowed the bohemian lifestyle and creative output she desires. After all, M Train does also take her to Frida Kahlo’s bed and Sylvia Plath’s grave.
When Patti was a child, scarlet fever made her an invalid for months, “cosseted in the atmosphere of the child convalescent,” she writes. The experience left its indelible mark on her, as early traumas do. M Train is filled with nights like those, as the bereaved, alone in her nest, comes to terms with her own mind again. Reportedly (it’s not explained in the book), that’s what the M in the title stands for — mind. But it could be the mystery train (Patti loves both a good rock song and detective stories), or the muse train, or the me train.
Certainly, M Train is self-indulgent. It’s the experimental work you get to do after you’ve made bank. Patti paid her dues for decades, finally got paid, and can write whatever she wants as far as I’m concerned. Sure, I got a little tired of all the paeans to dead dudes. But I ached to be in the Alamo; her dream of life there flew off the page. “I sat on my lopsided porch and gazed with girlish happiness at my yard dotted with resilient dandelions,” she says on the day the house becomes hers. Soon after, the boardwalk, the train, and the beach café are all gone, but the Alamo stands.
M Train begins and ends in a dream state. The line between waking and sleeping, remembering and doing, living and dying, is porous for Smith. As she did when she was a girl, she gets out of her convalescent bed and walks “straight through the twilight [of my dream]. […] I was my own lucky hand of solitaire.” Well played, Patti.
An assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, Evelyn McDonnell profiled Patti Smith for a cover story in The Village Voice in 1995. Her most recent book is Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.