Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Book Review and quiet wonderings about M Train by Patti Smith

The first Patti Smith song I ever heard was Gloria (in Excelsis Dio), on a cassette lying around my mums music drawer. I knew this song familiarly from our school’s annual Christmas cantata. Except Patti's was a ripped out version of the hymn where the part I could sing along to, mainly the lyrics Gloria (In excelsis deo) never appeared, no matter how many times my barely 12 year self patiently replayed it. Not even the Gloo-oo-rreee-aaa refrain I’d practiced in my falsified alto. And yet this strange, almost reggae like beat of rock n roll, stuck in my brain “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

In later years, I learnt only stray bits of her more famous music (especially 'Because the Night’with Bruce Springsteen), but the song that makes me strangely like Patti smith is the fairly lesser known Constantine’s Dream. It reads like none I’d heard before; part memoir resembling poetry but mostly rambling prose, it wasn’t designed around a beat which automatically makes it an ear worm. If you listen to it 30 times on repeat, it probably wouldn’t be an ear worm even then.
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked /
His nature that was nature itself /
And I heard him - I heard him speak /
And the birds sang sweetly /
And the wolves licked his feet,
But I could not give myself to him.

It follows course, then, that her book M Train (which after November last year, I re-read on a whim in one sitting last night) is the missing hymn from my childhood, song lyric, deep musing and an elegy to love and loss more than her songs were.

Don’t get me wrong; Patti follows no meter here either.
The book opens into minutiae and there it stays.
You follow her inside and out, sometimes in circles and sometimes on a roller-coaster sharp steep drop backwards while she details stories around coffee-swirling paper cups, deli sandwiches and encrusted soup bowls. Minutiae of your own life, perhaps, but Patti (meter-less mostly) remembers to mention in ending sentences, middle pauses and abruptly when she can that these may well be symbols of joy, or maybe neglect. Or could it all be, “A little jacking off, but mostly just work.”

You will resist the details of her life, until you will recognize and never be able to un-see that this book is a staggering tribute to time itself. 
Less a Didion like elegy and more a scrambling through Ms Smith’s personal drawers which hold mostly Polaroids, episodes of her sipping familiar coffee on favourite chairs rifling through memories, while taking a train back and forth between: old adventures with, her now deceased husband, Fred, to the more current crusade to find the best coffee beans in the world in a burlap sack filled shop, in Veracruz, Mexico, to playing chess with the slightly unhinged Buddy Holland.

Ms. Smith never travels alone. 
Always with her Polaroid camera, a book of the moment and through most part of M Train, a much loved and heavily mourned for black coat. The camera is employed to take pictures on the graves of authors and artists she’s loved: Plath, Freida and Diego, Akutagawa, Bolano, Brecht and Jean Genet. Reflecting none of the narcissism of appropriating the places we go to now, the celebrities we meet and document with our selfies and check-ins; this is a quieter, revered handshake with an artist she loves. A meeting made real to Ms. Smith only when captured on 24x36mm instant film and less when not.
Like Ms. Plath’s desolate grave (which Ms. Smith journeys to three times to get the perfect shot of in the winter), where 30 year old forever Ms. Plath lies as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. “I had an uncontrollable urge to urinate and imagined spilling a small stream, some part of me wanting her to feel that proximate human warmth. Life, Sylvia, Life.

M Train’s sentences are not constructed musings on everyday, chronological events as many memoirs tend to be. They're a gentle questioning of how even a Metro Card can be married to memory and of life and how it used to be. Most of all though, they're a swim inside a deep sense of melancholy, one you'll you want to join Ms. Smith in. Here napkins when burnt, resemble flora, “each closed like a fist, slowly reopening like petals of cabbage roses” and dirty streams become fairy-tale narratives, “a secret stream incandescent with rainbows, a mix of sun and petrol, skimming the water like weightless Merbabies with iridescent wings.” Ms. Smith’s world is on the surface resembling your own but somehow spartan, vastly different and shaped mostly by her.

The departure from Didion’s own poetic musings on grief is where Ms. Smith instead of being forbearing and stoic in her loss, writes if you let her, more of an instruction to life. This in its sheer,chilling simplicity is less rock-n-roll and more meditation, “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

Through Tokyo, a secret Continental Drift Society in Reykjavik which later urged her to burn past communication, England, Mexico City, Tangiers and her new home , her Alamo, on Rocakway Beach, Ms. Smith carries with her, her constants. A deep, almost disturbing consumption of coffee, mostly consumed at Café Ino, a black coat, much loved, more frayed and eventually lost, pictures, a recognizable love for detective shows (even if they are re-runs) and her ability to see things which you may never look at: to record these and to glean from them a manual on how to overcome loss, how to dance in the snow and how to really live life with a constant soft movement. Forward.

How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints and my iron coloured hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing the surrender my pen.

(Since all I have is a Kindle copy, got this pic from @mansipoddar)
                                                               (This image from @spensieratadc on Instagram)

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