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Patti Smith’s memoir turns small moments into heavy reflections

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Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

M Train By Patti Smith, $25.

“Nothing can be truly replicated,” Patti Smith says in her new memoir, M Train. “Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.” Yet in the span of her book, the musician distills ineffable, tragic human existence into a collection of experiences, meditating on the intangible permanence of loss over a lifetime. Through freely associated vignettes and artful snapshots of her life—a catalog of the unremarkable told in remarkable language—the artist creates an elegy for objects, people and muses she’s left behind. Smith’s M Train demonstrates, once again, the artist’s ability to turn a phrase or an image on its head. Her routines and quirks permeate the narrative repetitively; her bleak days and spartan way of living allow for both quiet moments and mournful reflection.

A sense of grief permeates M Train. “We want things we cannot have,” she writes. “We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

M Train exists mostly in the ordinary spaces of Smith’s life—time spent watching TV at home, time spent on airplanes and in cafés. But whether she writes of a dream or a lost coat, she connects threads of memory, pain and the absurdity of human experience. “I have always hated loose ends,” she tells us.

Smith is as captivating narrating a meal (“Just silence black coffee olive oil fresh mint brown bread”) as she is illustrating the nature of masterpiece. At one point she delineates the different types of masterful work, and then pages later, refutes her assertion: “The truth is that there is only one kind of masterpiece: a masterpiece.” Though she settles on a single idea, her work is richer for the struggle. M Train floats languorously from past to present, from dream to waking moment. Smith grieves for lost things, people and places. Her work embodies a constant yearning, and the effect of her amalgamated experiences is a picture of life that becomes about accepting loss. There’s a conceit carried through the book about writing when there’s nothing to say; in Smith’s moments of nothing, though, she says everything.

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