Book Review: M Train by Patti Smith–like listening to an old friend

 

Punk-rock legend Patti Smith

Patti Smith (photo: MPR/Nate Ryan)

Reading Patti Smith is like listening to an old friend–but an old friend who is better read, better traveled and better experienced than you. And certainly wiser. And though she states several times at the beginning of M Train she has nothing to write about, her sense of nothing is quite different than mine.

As a means of remembering and reminiscing about her deceased husband–Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994–M Train begins by documenting a trip to French Guiana that the two of them took with the express purpose of gathering pebbles at an abandoned jail in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. It is a trip filled with obstacles and difficulties, but the three pebbles she has gathered are for placing on Jean Genet’s grave– the type of gesture of reverence and respect that Smith repeats throughout her account. And though her remembered moments with her husband anchor the memoir, more of it chronicles her life that continues on afterwards.

And what we find in that chronicle is an extraordinarily interested human being. (And generally, those who are most interested in the world around them are usually the most interesting themselves!) Smith is a voracious reader and much of her writing deals with what she is reading and the directions it sends her. (Here is a list of books–from Rimbaud to Susan Sontag–that Patti Smith once recommended.) The writer Maria Popova, in her wonderful blog BrainPickings, also has amassed a list of Smith’s literary references from M Train alone.

Her relationship with books goes well beyond the printed page. She engages with the authors and the characters and the places. (In actuality, she knew a good number of writers: Burroughs, Bowles, Ginsberg.) When she first reads Murakami, she reads nothing else, going from one novel to the next (though not in chronological order.) When she reads his The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately rereads it, fixating on a specific fountain that appears in the novel.

For Smith, the writers and artists who create the things she loves are very real–and she feels very close to them and their spirits. Thus, she visits Frieda Kahlo’s bedroom and Sylvia Plath’s grave, photographs Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Beckett’s spectacles, Tolstoy’s bear. In Japan she makes pilgrimages to the graves of her most beloved writers and honors them reverently.  To her, the spirit of these creative individuals remains. Like her husband, they too are dead, but still inform her world.

And while she is an extraordinary reader and traveler, she is also very much an ordinary person: addicted to detective shows (The Killing, Law and Order, and the gamut of BBC detectives), sits on her front stoop to smoke a cigarette, feeds her cats, and hangs out in a favorite coffee shop. (A hilarious scene occurs when a woman takes her regular table while she’s in the bathroom and Smith fantasizes how the woman’s murdered body would be positioned in various detective shows.)

It is this ordinariness that is the most charming. We easily forget that she is more than an artist–is in some senses a celebrity. But one never meets the celebrity; instead we meet a woman who is at times gregarious and at other times meditative, who lives simply and cherishes the little moments of our lives, and who is still capable of being overpowered by  a book she has read or awed by a celebrity she has met. (She tells an amusing tale of running into the British actor, Robbie Coltrane, who starred in the rarely televised detective series Cracker.)

She reads with an artist’s eye and a writer’s ear; yet she writes like an old lost friend. And that is what has made both of her memoirs —Just Kids and M Train–such a joy to read.

Below is a lovely (6 minute) video of Patti Smith “giving advice to the young.” It is a good example of her wisdom, her kindness, and her hope.

 

A Chance Meeting: MK Asante on public radio

I rarely drive, so I rarely listen to the radio. That might not make sense for many, but I know that some will understand. The radio is simply not part of my home life.

But anyway,there were reasons for my being behind the wheel this past Thursday and I was listening to RadioTimes on Public Radio (Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia.) The guest was MK Asante, a hip-hop singer, filmmaker,  writer and creative-writing/film teacher at Morgan State University.

I was blown away.buckautographed

Asante was plugging his new book, Buck: A Memoir about his life in “Killadelphia” during the 1990s.  At the same time it is the story of his family’s breaking apart and then coming back together.

Asante was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia.  His parents’ marriage disintegrated, his idolized brother had a series of run-ins with the law and was imprisoned, his mother suffered from clinical depression, and he grew up in the “hood” full of anger, confusion, and energy.

This coming-of-age story is probably more familiar than it ever should be, but, oh, the language itself is extraordinary. Like nothing you ever heard.

Here is the first paragraph of the book: (Asante reads it in the interview attached below):

The Fall

      The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in air like sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed.

     Cracks, splits, bits.

     The rawest crews in Philly are all three letters,“  he tells me. I read the cover through the tobacco guts and weed flakes:  “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson: ‘I’m Not Good.  I’m Not Bad. I’m Just Trying to Survive in this World.’”

Awakening crews in a rude fashion
On they ass like Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant•

      I do this–spit lyrics to songs under my breath–all day, every day. The bars just jump out of me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.

     Dumps, spreads, evens.

    “JBM–Junior Black Mafia. Of course us,  UPK–Uptown Killaz.  PHD–Play Hero and Die.”

     Tears, licks, wraps.

    “HRM–Hit Run Mob. EAM–Erie Ave. Mobsters.  ABC–Another Bad Creation.”

    Folds, rolls, tucks. Another perfect blunt, jawn looks like a paintbrush.

    Jawn  can mean anything–person, place, or thing. Sometimes if we’re telling a story and don’t want people to know what we’re talking about, we’ll plug in jawn in for everything. The other day I was at the jawn around the corner with the young jawn from down the street. We get to the jawn, right, and the ngh at the door is all on his jawn, not nowing I had that jawn on me. Man, it was about to be on in that jawn.

“ Wreck Your Ears (Can Do),” The B.U.M.S. (Brothers Under Madness), 1965

This is language at its most alive, its most energetic. (To hear him read it is even more electrifying.)

Asante mentions in the interview that the first book that turned him on was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Besides the plot of the novel–drugs, sex, wildness–which he was surprised to learn could be the focus of serious literature, it was the style of the writing that attracted him, the energy, the speed, the exuberance.  As he said, from it he learned he didn’t have to worry about commas.

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

MK Asante’s journey from the hood to plugging his books on national radio is one story. But it is a minor story.  The true story is the language of this memoir. It is hypnotizing, energetic, alive and present.  It puts me to shame.

In two more weeks I begin teaching a class in creative writing. My students are quite a distance from the world that MK Asante grew up in.  Nevertheless, I am opening class with readings from the book.  It is a lesson in being true to oneself, in being true to one’s voice, in being able to plumb one’s life for the story we all need to tell.

Here is the interview in its entirety: (this is Radio Times web site and will feature the day’s current show. Scroll down to the middle of the page to hear MK Asante on yesterday’s show. As time passes, the 8/22/2013 show will be placed in the easily accessed archives. And check out MK Asante’s web page, above, to see trailers, past works, etc.)

RADIO TIMES INTERVIEW WITH MK ASANTE