The writer is a conductor, opines the 'vaguely handsome, intensely laconic' cowpoke who speaks to Patti Smith as she lingers at 'the frame of a dream'. His words shape Smith's days. 'It's not so easy writing about nothing,' this companion tells her, and she scratches these words over and over onto a wall in her home with a chunk of red chalk.
Writing about nothing is partly the work of mourning that Smith undertakes, remembering her relationship with husband Fred 'Sonic' Smith, with whom she brought up their two children and collaborated musically, as well as her mother, brother, and others who have died. M Train is a melancholy, moody journey through fourteen stations, which are almost like the Stations of the Cross, as Smith trawls associated stories and explores relics in a kind of pilgrimage.
Forty years ago, Patti Smith's acclaimed first album, Horses (1975), blended poetic lyrics with a proto-punk aesthetic. As her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids (2010), reveals, though, this early success sprang from seeds of creative work assiduously tended for years before, many of these in the company of friend, muse, and sometimes-lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose memory is central to the book's anatomy of creative beginnings.
A conductor channels energy, and the idea of transmuted ideas and inspiration is at the heart of this work. Dorothy Porter used the same metaphor, describing poetry as 'a lightning rod for the sacred, the extreme and the daemonic'. Smith's art conducts energy, but she is also a conductor in the sense of orchestrating the array of influences her work remembers and the art forms her work encompasses. 'I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll,' she writes in Just Kids.
Just Kids memorialises the loss of friends and artists such as Janis Joplin and Mapplethorpe himself, while Horses contains homages to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, who died at twenty-eight in 1970 and twenty-seven in 1971, respectively. The vigorous incantatory repetitions and stream of consciousness of Horses embody the equine energy Sylvia Plath saw as powering poetry's 'indefatigable hooftaps'. Plath's posthumous collection Ariel (1965), named after the poet's own horse, was 'the book of my life' when Smith was twenty. A sense of lineage and homage are crucial to Smith's practice, as they were to Plath.
In M Train, Smith recalls several visits to Plath's Heptonstall grave, where a strange shimmering light momentarily creates the vision of Plath in a 'cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return'. In Japan, Smith tries to channel the writer Osamu Dazai, asking him: 'What is nothing?' and receiving the answer: 'It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror.'
'Writing about nothing is partly the work of mourning that Smith undertakes'
'You write with your hand,' sing Crass lyrics of Patti Smith in 'Punk is Dead', 'but it's Rimbaud's arm'. I'm not sure Smith would object. In Just Kids she describes Rimbaud as her archangel, adding: 'The knowledge of him added swagger to my step and this could not be stripped away.' Steeped in poetry, and fascinated by creativity's infectious spread from artist to artist, her writing is attentive to serendipity, bibliomancy, and the inheritance of artistic drive. When she covers Nirvana's 1991 hit single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', she might as well be channelling its original singer, Kurt Cobain, even as she makes it her own with the gravel of her voice, bare banjo-jangle instrumentation, and the pluck and swagger of syncopation.
The stations of M Train include Frida Kahlo's house and the graves of Jean Genet and Rimbaud. Included are Polaroid photographs of treasured artists' relics – Virginia Woolf's walking stick, and Roberto Bolaño's writing chair. From her favourite table at a New York café – and fuelled, it seems, almost exclusively by black coffee and an occasional piece of toast – she writes about artists, television detective series, memories, dreams, and Dr Who ('the David Tennant configuration, the only Dr Who for me').
She delivers a lecture from notes scribbled on a handful of paper serviettes, crushed into her pocket. When she later throws them into the fire, they are closed like fists that reopen 'like petals of small cabbage roses'. She invents games of chance to kindle her work, such as playing an 'interior hopscotch' that starts with uttering a series of words starting with a chosen letter: 'Madrigal minuet master mister monster magnet maestro mayhem.' She evokes the textures of her life of reading, writing, and wandering in streams of unpunctuated witness: 'silence black coffee olive oil fresh mint brown bread.'
'The stations of M Train include Frida Kahlo's house and the graves of Jean Genet and Rimbaud'
Verbally and aesthetically, the effect is fast and associative, like graffiti. Smith is the artist as bricoleuse, drawing together textures, impressions, and found objects. From Brecht's grave to the stone angels that attend it, from Mother Courage and Her Children to her own mother burying her son, Smith's mind alights and returns as memory's train loops through its stations. 'Everything pours forth,' she writes, 'Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.' Of the objects she studies she writes: 'They are all stories now.' Amidst the 'genies and hustlers and mythic travellers – my vagabondia', Smith channels the icons that shape her own art, itself iconic for its itinerant energy, its patterns of eclectic influence and the splinter and swagger of its expression.