“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” This is how we enter M Train, the new memoir from writer, poet, and accomplished punk singer Patti Smith. The sentiment comes to Smith in a dream, spoken by a recurring cowpoke. She never does refute his idea completely—in fact her frequent bouts of writer’s block all but support it. But she spends the book trying to explore and deal with the intangible parts of the world: love, loss, and loneliness.
M Train is Smith’s first book since her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Part of what makes Just Kids so universally beloved is that it doesn’t require any kind of deep, obsessive knowledge of Smith’s work to be enjoyed. We feel the relationship between Smith and her dear friend Robert Mapplethorpe—and their budding relationships with their own art—on the page. Because Smith guides us on such a vivid journey, the emotional ups-and-downs of their daily lives as artists wind up being the most important parts of the story, not the stardom we know they accomplish.
M Train is written in the same spirit, but is, at it’s core, a very different book. It’s much more internal and contemplative; we move through the chapters, referred to as “stations,” with Smith’s mind as the train. But even within each station, Smith meanders stream-of-consciously, leading us from present-day realities, to dreamscapes, to memories, and back again seamlessly. The overall effect of this weaving is a more spiralled story than the metaphor of train travel implies. Each chapter is more like an electrical storm, the book a hurricane dotted with them.
These wanderings show us her present-day high-profile artistic lifestyle and the lectures she’s asked to give. Often, her mind travels inward. She tells us of her great artistic loves, her Haruki Murakami novels and her crime procedurals, while she drinks a heroic amount of coffee at her favorite New York cafe. She entwines her dreams with daylight immediately upon waking, and the characters that appear, like the cowpoke, become as real to us as her friends.
She also leads us to her past. Perhaps most poignant are the spare but powerful details of her relationship with her late husband, Detroit musician Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994 at the age of 45. In one particularly gripping section, Hurricane Sandy’s present-day tumult reminds her of the storm that raged the night of Fred’s hospitalization. The way she fuses the two scenes together is a testament to both the mechanics of human memory—the way storm recalled storm—and to their love. It’s both riveting and devastating. “You’ve been gone long enough,” she says in another moment, blindsided by memory of Fred. “Just come back.”
Patti Smith, perfoming in 2007 in Finland. Photo by Beni Köhler.
But as its quilted structure suggests, this book is not about her and Fred’s relationship in the way Just Kids was about her and Mapplethorpe’s. M Train focuses more on what life is like after one lives within world-stopping love. “The things I touched were living,” she writes of her life with Fred near the book’s end. “My husband’s fingers, a dandelion, a skinned knee. I didn’t seek to frame these moments. They passed without souvenir.” Now, she seeks those souvenirs, those tangible things she can grasp. She holds dearly to fiction, physical objects, and photographs—mostly of artists’ otherwise ordinary material objects—collected during her frequent pilgrimages to personally significant places around the world. She travels regularly just to get a photograph or two: to Sylvia Plath’s Yorkshire grave, to La Casa Azul in Coyoacan, Mexico where Frida Kahlo lived with Diego Rivera. These photographs, many of which we see amidst the text, don’t necessarily need to be good, either. What matters to Smith is that the photograph shows the beloved object—Roberto Bolaño’s chair, Herman Hesse’s typewriter, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick—and the object then becomes something she can posses.
But an interest in physicality comes with an inherent possibility for loss. She loses a beloved coat, precious because it was given to her off the back of a poet friend. “I loved my coat and the cafe and my morning routine,” she says. “It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity.” For Smith, physical objects are manifestations of internal lives. They’re ideas made corporeal.
Ultimately, her search for objects feels like searching for clues, like she’s miming her favorite fictional detectives. An entire chapter—a brief one, but a full chapter nonetheless—is devoted to the cancellation of the American version of the crime drama The Killing. What she’s really mourning, though, is the loss of the show’s protagonist, Sarah Linden, who Smith says “comingles with [her] own sense of self.” Like Linden, or any good detective, Smith dislikes loose ends and hates to be left in limbo: “If I read a book or see a film and some seemingly insignificant thing is left unresolved, I can get remarkably unsettled.” Earlier in the book, while reading W. G. Sebald, Smith scribbles in the margins, “I may not know what is in your mind, but I know how your mind works.” This, too, is how she feels about Sarah Linden.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Smith has such a deep fondness for detective stories, to the point that she’s even writing one herself. The crime procedural does not fit life’s messy non-narratives. It has its own neatness. And perhaps this is her draw to writing in general as well; she refers to the writer as “the visualization detective.” Both detective and writer seek their own sort of truth.
Smith seems most interested, at least on the page, in a kind of poetic truth, one that doesn’t owe itself to hard facts if those facts aren’t available. We see her get in trouble for this early in the book. She’s invited to give a talk about anything she’d like at the Continental Drift Club’s semi-annual convention in Berlin. The CDC, an “independent branch of the earth-science community” dedicated to Alfred Wegener, was an elite group, one Smith says she was only invited into “by accident.” At the convention, she gives a speech imagining Wegener’s last moments. The crowd grumbles, “This isn’t science, it’s poetry!” Later, she tells us she merely wished to envision what Wegener saw. She does something similar with Sylvia Plath, turning over what Plath could have been thinking about when she killed herself, wondering what happened with the oven afterwards. She writes about nothing by filling in that nothing.
Smith knows not what is in her heroes’ minds, but she knows how their minds work, and for her, that doesn’t make the emotions she finds less true. “Nothing can be truly replicated,” she says. “Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.” Smith knows she can’t precisely depict the unknowable, and she knows her photographs are replications, but for her, these likenesses, the poetic truths of them, don’t feel less true than their real, emotional, physical embodiments.
So how do you write about nothing? As Smith shows us, you seek. You write toward something. If writing is obsession, as Smith suggests, and you find yourself without one, then you write toward that nothing, and when you reach it, you fill it with art and love and coffee and your own solitude. More than anything, M Train’s divergences feel like a life stumbling around that potent loneliness. She gives us what’s in her mind and she shows us how it works. With this, she shows us something important, something we often fail to remember: Art is work. Art is not always smooth, reckless genius. Like life, like loneliness, it’s often hard, and writhing, and everything but effortless.
Related Reading: Patti Smith on Tour 40 Years After Horses