notes / kortina.nyc

Smith // M Train

I just listened to M Train and remembered how much I love the sound of Patti Smith’s voice, her south Jersey accent, the way she says water (“wooder”) and so many other things. She reminds me of growing up on the Delaware River.

In M Train, Smith says:

I wondered if I would have been a good detective. It kills me to say it, but I don’t think so. I’m not the observant type. My eyes seem to roll within. I paid the check, marveling that the same murals of Dante and Beatrice have papered the café walls since at least my first visit in 1963. Then I left and went shopping. I bought a copy of a new translation of The Divine Comedy and laces for my boots. I noticed I felt optimistic.

But she is the observant type.

The thing that struck me again and again while reading this book was her

reverence for artist souls.

Smith pays deep respect to kindred spirits past, communes with the dead, transcends the boundaries of space and time.

She responds to art in exactly the way that makes you want to create something – so that one day you may touch someone’s soul this deeply. This is worth more than an audience of 1 million.

For example,

That night I dined alone, an elegant meal of steaming abalone, green-tea soba noodles, and warm tea. I opened a gift from Yuki. It was a ­coral-­colored box wrapped in heavy paper the color of sea foam. Inside the pale tissue were loops of soba from the Nagano prefecture. They lay in the oblong box like several strings of pearls. Lastly, I focused on my pictures. I spread them across the bed. Most of them went into a souvenir pile, but those of the incense burner at the grave of Akutagawa had merit; I would not go home empty-handed. I got up for a moment and stood by the window, looking down at the lights of Shibuya and across to Mt. Fuji. Then I opened a small jar of sake.

—I salute you, Akutagawa, I salute you, Dazai, I said, draining my cup.

—Don’t waste your time on us, they seemed to say, we are only bums.

I refilled the small cup and drank.

—All writers are bums, I murmured. May I be counted among you one day.

She describes traveling through time as “communing with angels” –

I tossed the crumpled napkins into the flame, and each closed like a fist, slowly reopening like petals of small cabbage roses. Fascinated, I watched as they fused and formed one enormous rose. It ascended and hovered above the tent of the sleeping scientist. Its great thorns pierced the canvas, and its heavy fragrance rushed within, enveloping his sleep, becoming one with his breath, and penetrated the chambers of his exploding heart. I was blessed with a vision of his last moments, rising from the smoke of cherished mementos of the Continental Drift Club. An enthusiasm pulsed through me whose language I knew well. These are modern times, I told myself. But we are not trapped in them. We can go where we like, communing with angels, to reprise a time in human history more science fiction than the future.

Perhaps my favorite bittersweet moment in the book is this reflection on favorite memories described as “moments of perfect certainty.” I’ve never thought about a favorite memory in this way, but it struck me as completely true. (And I love the injunction, “Don’t grow.” Isn’t that how we cling to things?)

I began to spend more time at the Dante but at irregular hours. In the mornings I just got deli coffee and sat on my stoop. I reflected on how my mornings at Café ’Ino had not only prolonged but also afforded my malaise with a small amount of grandeur. Thank you, I said. I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony. Our daughter, Jesse, standing before me stretching out her arms.

—Oh, Mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.

We want things we cannot have. 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.


Some other bits I loved…


This sudden mood change, from nowhere:

The world is everything that is the case. There’s a positively elegant wisecrack courtesy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico, easy to grasp yet impossible to break down. I could print it in the center of a paper doily and deposit it into the pocket of a passing stranger. Or maybe Wittgenstein could be my valentine. We could live in a little red house in cantankerous silence on the side of a mountain in Norway.

On the way to ’Ino I noticed the lining of my ­left-­hand pocket was torn and made a mental note to mend it. My mood suddenly lifted. The day was crisp and bright, the atmosphere quivering with life, like the translucent strands of a rare aquatic species with long, flowing tentacles, lappets flowing vertically from a jellyfish’s bell. Would that human energy could materialize in such a way. I imagine such strands waving horizontally from the edges of my black coat.


Her answer to “what is nothing” recalled to me Harding’s idea from Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth that you only perceive the rest of the universe, never the self:

Deeply concentrating, I attempted to channel the writer. But I could not keep up with my thoughts, as they were swifter than my pencil and wrote nothing. Relax, I told myself, you have chosen your subject or your subject has chosen you, he will come. The atmosphere surrounding me was both animated and contained. I felt a growing impatience coupled with an underlying anxiety that I attributed to a lack of coffee. I looked over my shoulder as if expecting a visitor.

—What is nothing? I impetuously asked.

—It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror, was the answer.


– read Patti Smith’s M Train