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Patti Smith’s M Train is a meditation on grief and memory

Patti Smith is dreaming. “It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” M Train opens. Her and a “cowpoke” stand in a sunset, the cowpoke ignoring her. “You got to at least look at me,” Smiths says to him. “After all, it is my dream.”

The cowpoke writes in a notebook pulled from his back pocket. It says, “Nope, it’s mine.”

This is the line the book straddles — dream and reality, tiny moments and succinct revelations. Smith is known for her poetry and the book shines with descriptive passages. The scenes are out of order, flipping between the current timeline and the past. Smith recounts a trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni with her husband, Fred Smith. Quickly we learn that in the present, Fred has died — something fans are already well aware of. He remains a flicker through the rest of the pages, a flash of her life then against her life now.

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Soon after Fred’s death she leaves Michigan to return to New York. A small cafe named Cafe ‘Ino becomes her solace, a place for her to go and reflect deeply on her memories and dedicate her focus to the present moment. She sits in the cafe writing down every possible thing she can, every moment she is aware of. She sits every day in the same chair at the same table; she has small conversations with the owner; it snows or it doesn’t.

Some days she is not at the cafe and she reads Haruki Murakami. She buys a dilapidated house in Rockaway Beach. She travels across the world. She visits Sylvia Plath’s grave. She watches CSI: Miami. She photographs the chess table Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky competed on in 1972. And then she writes at Cafe ‘Ino. Nothing much happens, it seems — except, of course, those moments stacking on top of each other.

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At the heart of M Train is grief and memory. It is not until the end of the book that Smith begins to plainly address her heartache toward losing her husband and her brother, Todd, who died one month after her husband. She feels that “the world seemed drained of wonder.” It is here that the small moments she has recorded illuminate, their monotony and detail reflecting Smith’s own questioning about what is important.

“What constitutes real time?” Smith wonders. “Is it time uninterrupted? Comprehending only the present? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repetitive images?”

Fans of Smith will recognize her unmistakable voice and enjoy the details that take her from one moment to the next. They will appreciate her photography and her unguarded admiration of artists, thinkers and popular television shows.

M Train is a masterful exercise in staying present and exploring loss. “It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” Smith claims, and yet that is what she has set out to do — to write about the nothingness that is everyday living, moment to moment, the small things we long for when they are no longer ours.

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The book does require a little faith. The chapters are often slow-moving; attention is drawn to the smallest of details with rare hints that the book is building toward a bigger picture. But the book pays off if you can stick with it, if you can trust that Smith is taking you somewhere in the only way she knows how.

“The writer is a conductor,” the cowpoke tells Smith. So Smith has taken us on a train ride, trying to home in on the details that too often become a blur. The journey can seem inconsequential, monotonous, but Smith proves that when you finally arrive at the station, the little things add up to something. They add up to everything. They add up to your life.

M Train is released Oct. 6, 2015.

fall 2015 book slideshow

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