It Takes a Train to Cry
If you are a Patti Smith fan, you probably know the events at the core of M Train, her beautiful and brilliant memoir. In 1980, Smith married the MC 5 guitarist, Fred Sonic Smith. In the prior five years, she had released four albums and published three books. In the next 14, she released one album and published one book. She and Fred settled in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, had two children, settled into bohemian domesticity.
In 1994, Fred died of a heart attack. A month later, her younger brother Todd, whose emotional support had buttressed Smith following the loss of her husband, died of a stroke. M Train begins prior to Thanksgiving 2011 and continues through Memorial Day 2013. It has been nearly 20 years, but those deaths still influence Smith’s choice of actions. They pull her attention, magnet-like, to the facets of experience she reports upon.
In the 18 months the book covers, Smith leaves her Greenwich Village apartment at different times for Germany, Mexico, Spain, Japan, Great Britain, and Tunisia. She visits the graves of, among others, Brecht, Ozu, Plath, Genet, (and recalls visits to those of Mishima and Rimbaud). She remembers encounters with Bowles, Burroughs, Ginsberg, the “Gone Beats,” who had mentored her. She honors through reference the “premature(ly)” departed Bolanos, Coltrane, Kahlo, Pollock. Her glasses, camera, book she is reading, treasured black coat are lost. Her favorite café closes. A scholars club to which she belongs disbands. Her newly purchased Rockaway Beach bungalow (“The Alamo,” she’d named it, after a place where all were slaughtered) is nearly destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. She notes other events, of course, but the unrelenting, complimenting, magnifying, building-to-crescendo weave of these overwhelms.
It seems to her as if a fog had “suddenly lifted and everything was gone…” “(A)n inescapable heaviness (hung)… over everything.” She exists behind a “veil of constant sorrow.” The same wave of conclusionary thought drums relentlessly upon her. “We want things we can not have,” she observes, “…a certain moment, sound, sensation…” She notes “a longing for the way things were.” “Why is it that we lose the things we love?” she asks. “Please stay forever…,” she says, “to the things I know.” Finally she comes to the best resolution she can manage. “They are all stories now.” “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down.”
We hold her answered promise – 253 pages – in our hands.
In Some Rain Must Fall, the fifth volume of his autobiographical My Struggle, Karl-Ove Knausgaard observes, “time dims everything, even the worst horrors, it interposes itself, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, and it is so immense that ultimately what happened completely dissolves and is gone.” It is unclear (to me, at least) if this represents the thinking of his 24-year-old self, whose life he is at-this-moment chronicling, attempting to reassure himself following a betrayal of his girlfriend, or if it is that of the book’s 42-year-old at-the-time-of-writing author. The younger man would not seem to have lived long enough – certainly with respect to his betrayal – to have achieved this judgment; and the older one, if only by virtue of his reporting and reflecting upon the betrayal, would seem to know it has not vanished and that this statement is absurd.
But no matter. Anyone who has lived for some years after even a mild horror knows that time dissolves nothing completely. It shades or reshapes or even allows it to be recalled with a rueful smile; but even a humiliating high school date is never entirely gone. (Doubt me, and I’ll recall several for you.) Read M Train and know even decades can barely absorb a serious blow.
For someone 75, bobbing, weaving, slipping punches, hopefully toward 80 and beyond, in a relationship which feels at least as deep and nurturing as Smith’s and already twice its length, her side of the argument drops the scale. And if you are still waiting for loss to separate you and your partner, her agony and efforts at adjustment seem particularly poignant and cruel. The questions can never be far from mind. Who will be called first? Who will suffer alone? How can coping occur?
It seems it must. It seems impossible.
End of Part 1.