Riding the M Train with Patti Smith

M Train

Patti Smith drinks a lot of coffee.

At one point in M Train, she writes that she can drink 14 cups a day without disrupting her sleep.

I believe this, because coffee seems to be mentioned on every page of her new memoir which is a collection of Smith’s dreams and thoughts as she writes, eats brown toast (is that burnt toast? pumpernickel?) with olive oil, and — of course — drinks coffee in various cafes, usually the now-closed Cafe ‘Ino in Greenwich Village of NYC, always at the same table.  (She admits to hiding in the bathroom and waiting for the table to be vacated, rather than make do with another spot.)

This is not a book where much actually happens. It’s not unlike her description of a technique she uses, “an insomnia counterattack …an interior hopscotch played in the mind, not on foot.

“One proceeds by uttering an uninterrupted stream of words beginning with a chosen letter, say, the letter M. Madrigal minuet master monster maestro mayhem mercy mother marshmallow merengue mastiff mischief marigold mind, on and on without stopping, advancing word by word, square by square.” 

There’s reference to a vision of a train with the letter M, but M Train definitely has a hopscotch-like, free-form quality, an attempt to make sense of a jumble of emotions.  “In time we often become one with those we once failed to understand.” (pg. 170) If you’ve ever been part of a writing workshop and the instructor says to write for ten minutes about whatever comes to mind, that’s what this feels like.  (It’s not so easy writing about nothing is the first line and at times this feels as if you’ve stolen a glimpse at a page written in Patti Smith’s notebook.)

M Train is what I would describe as a “writer’s book” and it isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It meanders, often in an esoteric way. As one would expect from the title, the theme of trains and journeys feature prominently, in various instances. For example, in a dream conversation that Patti has with a cowpoke, he tells her that “the writer is a conductor.” Later in the book, Patti wonders:

“Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present  yet digress, is that still real time?” (pg. 83)

and, post Hurricane Sandy

“I can no longer take a train to Rockaway Beach and get a coffee and walk the boardwalk, for there is no more a running train, cafe, nor boardwalk. Just six months ago I had scrawled I love the boardwalk on a page of my notebook with the effusive sincerity of a teenage girl. Gone is that infatuation, that untapped simplicity embraced. And I am left with a longing for the way things were.” (pg. 164)

By the time M Train came to a stop, I felt that way, too.

 

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