M Train


On a quiet Thanksgiving morning, I’m finding the space to finally watch the edited, televised Patti Smith interview on PBS that I saw live in early October. I’m struck anew, and on this day, by her gratitude. “I’m grateful all the time that Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women; I’m grateful the New Testament was written. I love books, and I love what the hand of mankind produces, whether painting, or music, opera, I just think it’s wonderful that we have that in our life.”

M Train is one of the most luxurious books I’ve ever held; it’s an object worthy of reverence, as much for its construction, for how it feels in the hand, as for what’s inside. I probably spent as much time running my fingers across the silky brown cover, just sitting and turning the pages for hours, listening to the wisp and scratch, thumbing the paper like money, as I did reading it. Anyone who thinks the book is dead should hold this one; touch it; take it in.

As Patti writes in the book, “as an object it had already manifested a sacredness …”

These are stories of movement and stillness. Her adventures – to graveyards in Japan, to visit Sylvia Plath, to the burial place, finally, of Genet, traveling to the North African seaside to present him a gift more than twenty years in the making – balanced by quiet moments in the corner of her café, along the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach, in a cold Tokyo hotel room, or buried beneath the covers in her New York City bedroom, fumbling with the remote.

What I wanted, and what I found, is this: Her images. Her words. How she sees the world.

Sylvia, in a cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return.

I sat quietly by the grave, conscious of a rare, suspended peace.

I slipped the photographs into my pocket. My mother was real and her son was real. When he died she buried him. Now she is dead. Mother Courage and her children my mother and her son. They are all stories now.

And rare moments of moral turpitude, the kind I love, when someone takes her café table. “I stood there mutely,” Patti writes. “If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.” But then: “Such dark thoughts for the sake of a corner table. My inner Jiminy Cricket spoke up. Oh, all right, I said. May the world’s small things fill her with delight.”

This is where I am, filled with delight by the world’s small things: creamy vellum, a deckle edge, a handful of words, artfully arranged. Whether she’s in the whirlwind or in the eye, the book is filled with her patience, despite the fact that she – above all – knows that there is never enough time.

When she’s in motion, though, caught up in the rapture of something so simple as crossing 6th Avenue on the way to her beloved café, that’s when I was most captivated. Especially then. Because that’s where she did the hard work of doing what sounds so simple, and yet what becomes, here, divine. “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café.”


My bookmark is a ticket stub, admittance to the reading Patti Smith gave at Lisner – as I read her words it peeks over the pages like strange divination, an invocation. Like a dare.


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