M Train

Patti Smith

“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” As M Train opens, Patti Smith enters a dream set in an isolated landscape, trying to get the attention of a cowpoke, “vaguely handsome, intensely laconic.” He ignores her and claims her dream as his own before declaring, “The writer is a conductor.” The book proceeds through eighteen “stations,” rather than chapters, though its linearity remains dreamlike, touching on themes of solitude, grief, and the creative process. The cowpoke recurs, as does Smith’s habit of visiting the café across the street from her apartment to drink black coffee and follow her meandering thoughts.

I closed my notebook and sat in the café thinking about real time. Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? 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? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.

While Smith delves into memories of her husband Fred Smith and their years in Michigan, and there is also a progression of time suggested by what she captures of her activities while writing M Train, this is less a memoir of biographic details and more of an introspective journey, impressionistic, meditative, and melancholic. Its dreamy quality and references to subconscious thought resonated deeply with me. I feel like I will return to this book many times.

For a time I did not dream. My ball bearings somewhat rusted, I went round in waking circles, then on horizontal treks, one touchstone after another, nothing actually to touch. Not getting anywhere, I reverted to an old game, one invented long ago as an insomnia counterattack but also useful on long bus rides as a distraction from carsickness. An interior hopscotch played in the mind, not on foot. The playing field amounted to a kind of a road, a seemingly limitless but actually finite alignment of pyrite squares one must succeed in advancing in order to reach a destination of mythic resonance, say, the Alexandria Serapeum with its entrance card attached to a tasseled velvet rope swaying from above. 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. How many times have I played this game, always falling short of the swinging tassel, but at the worst winding up in a dream somewhere?

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