Devotion: Patti Smith

I started this review at three in the morning. I woke up with a pain in my side; probably the result of poor cooking decisions on my part. I sat in a large chair, covered myself in blankets, and wrapped a heavy scarf around me for a shawl. The pains subsided with the writing, and the act carried them away.

A book that bears the subtitle (if only on the cover) “Why I Write” offers a starting point for interpretation before the work is even begun. There is a whole genre of writing given to the subject, ranging from musings and memoirs of the writing experience (The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard), to review collections as guides to identifying “good prose” (The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis), or the technical guides for usage (The Elements of Style by Strunk and White). Smith’s book is none of these things—not really. Smith has practiced devotion both as a writer and reader since adolescence. Reading her previous work—Just Kids and M Train in particular—informs me of her pilgrimages, her loves, her elemental respect for art that is capable of expressing the best humanity can offer. She has given her life to artists, even if they could not always give it back.

Patti Smith Pirelli Annie Leibovitz
Patti Smith photographed by Annie Leibovitz, 2016

The world Patti Smith inhabits, as well as the world she crafts throughout her work, is one where the past is still resting on the ground around her. It is the same world we inhabit. Smith has the gift to bring this past into focus like a camera lens moving from background to foreground. Leaving a café is not just leaving—Smith passes a bust of Apollinaire crafted by Picasso—the same bust she saw in 1969 when she visited Paris with her sister. 1969 brings her memories of the existentialists and their cafés. Later, Smith will go to her French publisher and follow the trail of Albert Camus, the existentialist/absurdist whose early death at the height of his power added yet more hauntings to his work. Before leaving for Paris, Smith grabbed du Plessix Gray’s monograph on Simone Weil, the atheist mystic whose room Camus meditated in before he went to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the layers of memory we see Smith’s influences on her writing, and the influences on her influences, and the way connection spreads out between artists across decades, languages, continents.

Patti Smith Performing “Land” and “Gloria” in Paris, 2015

Writing begins with transcribing, interpreting; collecting. There is no blank space where ideas come from. Instead, Smith sifts through the worlds in front of her, building from the pieces that come together. This gives voice to the work as well as the ghosts that helped create it.

I have stacks around me as I write at five in the morning. Because of the stomach pain, I will forgo early morning coffee. Because of the stomach pain, I will ignore the fact that I started a sentence with “Because,” a fragmentary move I have always disliked. I have read du Plessix Gray on Weil at least four times in the last seven years—a life of self-denial was never so interesting or so genuine. There are texts next to me I should be working on—class readings, research materials, overdue library books. I scratch on with my black pencil, making notes on the paper, beginning a new sheet after filling both sides, making notes on the margin. Putting a finished sheet next to the new, I’m struck by the rate at which words turn into sentences, which turn to pages; which turn into a book. Smith’s notebook looks open-faced on the cover photograph. Is this a part of the first incarnation whose preserved product sits in my lap?

Devotion handwritten

These connections between names, dates, works, and experience form a mystical way of engaging with the world for Smith.

At St. Pancras International I took yet another train to Ashford, the last length of my journey, to find Simone Weil’s grave. We passed row houses, a lifeless landscape. I noticed the date on my ticket was June 15, the birthday of my late brother Todd. His only child a daughter called Simone. I immediately brightened. Only good could happen today (24).

Smith’s notes become the trail that forms this book, the pieces of which have been built up before us. “Looking back on these fragments, I am struck with the thought that if Devotion was a crime, I had inadvertently produced evidence, annotating as I went along” (27). Samuel R. Delany once wrote in his critical study, The American Shore, about the material that builds and goes into a work

The preparation [of fictional creation] is only partially retrievable from an examination of the text; such retrieval may occur only through more or less informed supposition. (29)

The body of Devotion shifts on page 35, becoming the story Smith has been gathering material for throughout the first section. This represents Smith’s first sustained work of fiction. (She has, we are told in whispers, been writing a detective novel for some time.) A story of comings and goings, the attentive reader will see how the images—both those Smith singled out for us and those we find on our own—relate to the first section A skater viewed sleepily on television becomes the heroine—a skater whose sport becomes a perfected performance art piece, documented by the viewer—the voyeur—instead of the camera.

Stop-start. Begin again with toast. Making toast, I remember Smith’s descriptions of her life in and out of coffee shops in M Train, and the various meals of coffee and toast she describes. Bread is calming and filling, but not ultimately satisfying—man does not live by bread alone. Time passes. I take these notes with me to work in a folder, and slip the folder into the center of Devotion.

The brief story that makes up the center of Devotion reads like a fairy tale. It is dark, a love story between unbalanced partners—a young woman named Eugenia and an older man named Alexander. Eugenia, a skater, intrigues Alexander, who takes it upon himself to become her provider and controller. They begin a relationship in which each exerts a certain amount of control. Eugenia finds her interest primarily in skating. Their relationship twists like the four—then five—axles she performs on a private arena. The two are oddities who meet but never seem to come together, except in elliptical violence. The notes of the first section again help a reader determine the underlying themes—history, myth, Estonia, migration and refuge from that snip of Europe, the archaic, the poetic, the haunted, and the tragedy of spiritual self-sacrifice.

Patti Smith performs “My Blakean Year” at NYPL, 2010

The third section of the book finds Smith on a different pilgrimage, to the home of Camus this time, at the invitation of his daughter to view his final manuscript, incomplete and pulled from his suitcase after the car crash that ended his life. Like Weil, he is a thread through it all—the inspiration and connection that becomes material in the story of writing. Viewing the manuscript, Smith becomes distracted, wanting to create something of her own, to enter into the dialogue of artists.

That compulsion that prohibits me from completely surrendering to a work of art, drawing me from the halls of a favored museum to my own drafting table. Pressing me to close Songs of Innocence in order to experience, as Blake, a glimpse of the divine that may also become a poem. (93)

 We see here pre-text and post-text—the creation and (brief) analysis, the scaffold and the unveiling. Recurrence allow details to stand out; specks of light to bleed through. Great work can often inspire others to response—affection and devotion. The ability to connect these things allows for an answer to the question that sent the muse running off at the start:

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply live (94).

I come home late into the evening. There is little I can find to do—food doesn’t appeal but neither does rest. Internet images fill cheaper desires. A shower offers an open warmth different from the heat of my room. My wrists no longer hurt. Silence. Meditation hinging on deep sleep and the dream state. I reach out to my notebook and my pen. Living is not enough in itself—we must make something out of it. It is in this making that we find devotion enough to keep us for our days.

devotion cover
The Author’s Copy of Devotion, 2017
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