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It’s not so easy writing about nothing: Patti Smith’s “M Train” review by Ron Wells

February 18, 2016


Patti Smith’s M Train review by guest blogger Ron Wells

Many people were expecting an uplifting or exciting book as Patti Smith’s follow-up to National Book Award Winning Just Kids. (Read review of Just Kids by Ron Wells here).

This is not that book. How you react to it will have a lot to do with where you are in your life, as well as how you feel about Patti Smith aka American singer-songwriter, poet, visual artist and a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement following her 1975 debut album Horses akathe “punk poet laureate” who fused rock and poetry in her work including Smith’s most widely known song “Because the Night” co-written with Bruce Springsteen.

M Train is a quiet requiem for all those whom Patti Smith has lost in her life. In its small and seemingly random vignettes, Smith fondly remembers family members and artists who have meant so much to her. Especially noteworthy is her husband Fred, her brother Todd, her father and mother, as well as artists such as Jean Genet and Frida Kahlo.

Smith documents her travels around the world to places and events that have meaning to her, but at the same time there is a consistent interest in getting a cup of coffee, eating at her favorite cafe, watching The Killing on tv, and buying a seashore house.

For what else is one to do other than continue to find meaning in the small and sometimes insignificant moments of life, when the souls who have passed still haunt one in memories that are deeply felt and penetrating?

“I love you, I whispered to all, to none,” writes Smith (253).

Her children, band members, and friends from around the world show up and spend time with her, but for the most part Smith is alone throughout the greater portion of the book. This is a solitary exploration of finding peace in the transient existence that is life.

“There is only one directive: that the lost are found; that the thick leaves encasing the dead are parted and they are lifted into the arms of light,” Smith writes (240).

There are many allusions to art works and artists that may be unfamiliar to the reader, but which obviously were inspirational to Patti Smith. Along with these, she documents her many dreams as well as the recurring image of a cowboy who tells her that writing about nothing is difficult:

“It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” Smith writes (3, 7).

M Train is about that nothingness and the somethingness that we all give meaning to in this world.

Most of all, it is an exploration of grief and the tenacity with which those who have died live on within us, while we attempt to overcome their loss and still find meaning in our own lives.

“I thought about what I would say, and the song, “What a Wonderful World” came on the radio. Whenever he heard it, Fred would say, Trisha, it’s your song. Why does it have to be my song? I’d protest. I don’t even like Louis Armstrong. But he would insist the song was mine. It felt like a sign from Fred, so I decided to sing “What a Wonderful World” a cappella at the service. ……Now it’s your song, I said, addressing a lingering void,” remembers Smith (235).

I have followed Patti Smith for 40 years. I understand what she does, most of which brings me great joy or insight. This book was no exception.

Many readers are finding fault with M Train, saying it is not coherent or that it’s just a scattered series of events. I, on the other hand, was able to find its coherence and its meaning. Even with its somewhat melancholy tone, it brought me a measure of peace.

I can understand how some would be disappointed with M Train, but I was not one of those. There is here an insightful and personal exploration of life, death, and sorrow that touched me deeply. Smith’s introspection moved me in extremely empathetic ways.

Thanks Ron, for your review! 

Looking for more memoirs to read this spring? Look no further than these Memoirs to Spring For with links to trailers, reviews and other information:

  • Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa
  • Violence Girl by Alice Bag
  • Bad Indians by Deborah Miranda
  • Life by the Cup by Zhena Muzyka
  • Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Here’s a link to a trailer made by my students for Always Running by Luis Rodrigues.

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