Patti Smith’s M Train

Sometime during the 1970s I came across Patti Smith’s book of poetry, Seventh Heaven. I just loved reading these poems over and over again. In fact, I still have my copy of the book.

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I once saw another collection of her poems and was tempted to buy it but didn’t. Anyway, when I saw her recent book M Train I decided I would read it. I was not disappointed. Patti Smith is a fascinating person and besides being famous as a punk-rocker, writes extremely well. There are sentences in the book that are real gems, just perfect. It is a beautiful book, a memoir and an invitation to travel with her in her imagination. M Train is a mind or mental train. Smith reveals to us how her mind works.
As an artist, Patti Smith is mesmerizing. She manages to cast a spell on the reader and draw us into her magical world. She talks of portals, of passages unlocking the imagination. Her connections are guided by her finely turned intuition.
We are invited to join her at her table in her favorite café, pictured on the cover of the book. As you can see, she has her camera with her, so you will also find her photographs sprinkled throughout the book. This reminded me of W.G. Sebald and Smith mentions his extraordinary writings. She talks of the writers and books that have impressed her, in the sense that they really left their mark, more recently Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I’ll have to read them now. She also mentions Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which I read. It was quite the experience.  I was struck by Smith’s photo of Bolaño’s chair.
Patti Smith: The Chair of Roberto Bolaño, Blanes, 2010
Doesn’t it make you wonder where he is. Of course, he died. There are also numerous photos of the graves of poets and writers she has visited, including Jean Genet and Sylvia Plath. Contemplating Plath’s suicide, Smith writes:
Sylvia placed her head in the oven. One can only shudder at the existence of such overriding desolation. The timer ticking down. A few moments left, still a possibility to live, to turn off the gas. I wondered what passed through her mind in those moments: her children, the embryo of a poem, her philandering husband buttering toast with another woman. I wondered what happened to the oven. Perhaps the next tenant got an impeccably clean range, a massive reliquary for a poet’s last reflection and a strand of light brown hair caught on a metal hinge.
She describes her visit to a friend’s café at Rockaway Beach, New Jersey, and how much she enjoyed the feel of the place, what with being on the ocean front and it having a long boardwalk. Before long she found a lowly bungalow and arranged to buy it despite her real estate lawyer strongly advising against it. One of the high points of her memoir is the advent of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coast. Sure enough, her modest house was spared although she had yet to renovate it. I imagine she will and that she will produce even more writings there. In the meantime, I can read Just Kids.
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Reading A Philosophy of Walking

A Philosophy of Walking  is not the kind of book I usually read, but it is the kind of book I would like to read more often.

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As the title suggests, this is not just a simple book about walking; it is a discussion of the philosophy of walking. The book alternates between Frédéric Gros’s enlightening thoughts on walking and what famous philosophers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau and Kant thought of walking. According to Gros, walking is the best way to slow down, to get in touch with yourself. And it’s simple.

To walk, you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional. If you want to go faster, then don’t walk, do something else: drive, slide or fly. Don’t walk. And when you are walking, there is only one sort of performance that counts: the brilliance of the sky, the splendour of the landscape. Walking is not a sport.

Walking is a form of liberation: “you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.”

Despite a brilliant academic career, for Nietzsche, walking provided a way out of intense suffering. His long walks in the mountains furnished the inspiration for his later writings, almost entirely thought out while on foot. The last ten years of his life were spent in solitary wanderings, which resulted in his best work.

Ought one really to walk alone? Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau are not alone in thinking so. Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others. When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm, and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you, so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for ten hours.

Alone one can listen to the silence: the silence of the woodlands, the silence of a hot summer afternoon in the mountains, the silence of early morning, the silence of the snow, and the extraordinary silence of the night.

Gros begins by commenting on shorter walks, then discusses walks that span days. Halfway through the book, he goes further back in time to consider the early pilgrimages, in which walking played an integral role. According to Joseph Bédier, a historian of medieval literature, “In the beginning was the road.”

The beginning, he meant, of the narrative, the novel, the epic poem. At the beginning of our literature, we would have found pilgrims’ roads. Bédier’s view is that early epic poems were born there, in the dust of the roads to [Santiago de] Compostela.

Towards the end of his book, Gros grants particular attention to the various states of well-being induced by walking: joy, serenity, happiness. He also provides a chapter on Gérard de Nerval’s “melancholy wandering.”

For Gros, there is no better way to stay connected to the earth than by walking, perhaps the most natural of human activities. He suggests we consider

those abstracted sedentary individuals who spend their lives in an office rattling their fingers on a keyboard: ‘connected’, as they say, but to what? To information mutating between one second and the next…. And after work it’s the subway, the train, always speed, the gaze now glued to the telephone screen, more touches and strokes and messages scrolling past, images … and night falls, when they still haven’t seen anything of the day. Television, another screen. What dimensions do they live in, without dust raised by movement, without contact, in what featureless space, in what time, where neither rain nor shine count? Those lives, disconnected from roads and routes, make them forget our condition, as if erosion by changing weather over time didn’t exist.

I’m taking up walking, seriously.

Don DeLillo’s Falling Man

A week after the shootings in San Bernardino, CA, The New York Times online announced that

Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any other time since the weeks after September 11, 2001.

It seemed like an appropriate time to be reading Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, which he published in 2007.

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.
     The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.
     He wore a suit and carried a briefcase. There was glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light.
Thus the novel begins. We are introduced to the protagonist Keith Neudecker, an American everyman, just after he made his way out of the North Tower and onto the street on that fateful morning when the World Trade Center was hit by “the planes.” Stunned, Keith kept on walking.
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Soon he heard the sound of the second fall. In the chaos, a passing van offers him a lift, and he heads to his estranged wife’s apartment.
Keith quietly picks up his marriage as if nothing had changed, but a great deal had changed, including Keith. In the following chapters, we learn about his relationship to his ex-wife Lianne and his young son, Justin. Information is provided in fragments by a distant third person narrator. We never really get inside Keith’s head, although we do get a sense of how disconnected he has become. In order to connect, to register the reality of what he and many others experienced, he begins to visit a woman on the other side of the park who also worked in the towers. Although she is virtually a stranger — Keith only meets up with her because he somehow happened to carry her briefcase out of the tower — they understand each other as they both survived the horrendous experience, an experience that simply cannot be put into words. At the end of Part 1, the narrative briefly shifts to Hamburg, Germany, where we get a glimpse of Hammad, who may have been one of the so-called “martyrs, ” that is, a terrorist. We meet him again at the end of Part 2.
Part 3 begins three years later, with Lianne and Justin, who is now ten, walking in protest to the impending invasion of Iraq. Although it is a huge manifestation, some half a million people, we get a sense of how isolated Lianne is. She walks the entire length of the protest and meets no one she knows. We soon go back four months to the luncheon following her mother’s funeral. Her lover Martin,a German art dealer, flies in. His background is murky; earlier we learned he may have been a terrorist during the late sixties, early seventies. He abruptly tells Lianne what the Germans are thinking.
We are all beginning to have this thought, of American irrelevance. It’s a little like telepathy. Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It is losing the center. It becomes the center of its own shit. This is the only center it occupies.
Lianne wonders what brought this on. As a reader, I wonder if this is what DeLillo thinks. Or is it simply what he’s thinking others, especially the Germans, are thinking. But these are Martin’s thoughts, possibly the comments of a former terrorist — but one of ours.
I don’t know this America anymore. I don’t recognize it, he said. There’s an empty space where America used to be.
As the novel draws to a close in the last section, we learn that Keith is now spending most of his time in Las Vegas, gambling. This seems to be the only way he can blot out what happened to him, to his country and to his colleagues. We are now brought back to the scene inside the North Tower before Keith made his way out onto the street. But, first, we are on board the plane as it flies down the Hudson corridor and into the tower, where we rejoin Keith.
The movement was beneath him and then all around him, massive, something undreamed. It was the tower lurching. He understood this now.
Keith takes his jacket from a hook behind the door as he prepares to leave. It is an automatic response, survival instinct taking over. On his way out, he spots the mutilated body of his colleague Rumsey, one of the guys he regularly played poker with. Keith tries to lift him up to carry him out, but it is too late. Like many others,  Rumsey is dead. Keith, however, makes it out just before the tower collapses. That fall reverberates through the text. One could say that Keith’s life collapsed at that very moment. Looking back over the wreck of the past decade, one could easily think that America itself collapsed.
This is a powerful novel. As I reread bits to write up my blog, I found it much, much better than the first read, magnetically gripping. Initially, one works through the text and then once one understands the structure and the point of the narrative, one can go back to the beginning and really absorb the power of the writing. The final section is a tour-de-force. DeLillo captures the monumental reality of that unforgettable day and provides a sense of its impact over the years that followed. As a postmodern writer, he truly is the master of contemporary American culture. I can hardly wait to read his new book Zero K, which should be out in May.