On Benefactors and Portals

Who are your people, the ones you feel most seen by, the ones that give you strength and inspiration? I’ve been thinking about mine after reading Patti Smith’s memoir.

Before reading Smith’s books, I only knew her as a leather-clad, androgynous rocker, but Smith is so much more than the “godmother of punk.” She’s also a writer, artist and poet. Her writing leads the reader backstage into her mind where the art is being made.

Smith won the National Book Award for her first book, Just Kids (2010), a chronicle of her friendship with the artist, Robert Mapplethorpe. It is the fulfilment of Mapplethorpe’s dying wish for her to tell their story—a bildungsroman of their artists’ lives in New York City during the late 1960’s-70’s. By the end of the book, she has married her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith and is living in Detroit, pregnant with her second child.

The title for her second book, the 2015 national bestseller M Train, came to Smith in a dream and the book itself is like a vehicle that transports the reader to distant places, as in a fairy tale. Her brilliant, roving mind travels to each of these people, who become the destinations.

Her third book, Devotion (2017) carries forward many of the ideas she has written about in her first two books. While Just Kids records the process of her becoming an artist, M Train invites the reader into her artist’s life. In Devotion, Smith includes a piece of her fiction, allowing the reader to witness how she transforms her practices of observation and contemplation into art.

Smith fills the pages of M Train with a wide range of artists, writers, poets, scientists, and adventurers. These people provide more to her than a muse’s fickle inspiration. The western definition of benefactor is someone who helps another by giving money, like a charitable foundation or a sugar daddy. But the Buddhist version trades in another currency, the intangible exchange of energy, goodwill, and inspiration.

M Train has over 80 names and references, some alive, many dead (and she loves detective stories in any form—a lot of these names belong to her favorite detectives). It also includes her cats, and the many places she travels, the pictures she takes and objects she collects (these are always in connection to the people).

If memento mori remind us of our mortality, Smith’s objects are her memento vitae, the animus that fuels her existence. She collects objects and takes photos that are connected with the artists and writers who inspire her, arranging and rearranging them, sometimes even talking to them. This external system reflects her internal one, how she treasures the thoughts of writers. It animates the relationship, their presence resonating in her mind.

This energy exchange mirrors the effect of her music. Smith energizes crowds with the playing of a chord and the vibration of her voice. She channels energy and broadcasts it to others, using it to activate a room. But this is also what has been done for her by the writers she reads and the artists she studies. Fed by Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, Ludwig van Beethoven, Haruki Murakami, and so many others, Smith is never alone. They map out the meaning of her life, this itinerary of people, places, ideas, and objects.

Benefactors are already present in one’s life, unlike the muse, who answers to no one. In classical and literary terms, the muse serves as a mystical source of inspiration. Yet even the word itself seems amorphous, in the very act of pronouncing it, the word seems to vanish off the tongue. Benefactors, on the other hand, while not necessarily concrete, are always available. It is a matter of cultivation, an expansive process that brings gratitude.

Smith’s book overflows with her benefactors: her father at his desk, making imaginary bets; her mother at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. When her children are young, a photo of Albert Camus hangs on the wall, set inside a frame handmade by her son, who “mistakes him for a distant uncle.”[1]

The process of identifying her benefactors generates my own fertile chain of associations. Who is my version of Camus, Rimbaud, Alfred Wegener? Some of her benefactors may also become mine; some already are, like Paul Bowles and Murakami. But during my 48 years, while I may have been enamored with some of the same ideas, writers and artists, I’ve thoughtlessly buried their them in literal and virtual piles.

Smith, on the other hand, has cultivated these long-term relationships throughout her life, returning, again and again, to a running dialogue she has with each. It’s this drawing out of the relationship, returning to her benefactors as touchstones, that is the extra step I never knew to take.

She traveled to Sylvia Plath’s grave in Leeds three times. Stuck on the plane with nothing to read, she conjures up the physical copy of Ariel, given to her when she was twenty, so that she may have something to read. This is another gift that Smith has given me, how she uses portals—her dreams, books, travel—to cross the barriers of time and space that separate her from those whom she has lost or with whom she feels a strong connection.

The idea of portals is nothing new in literature. Narnia’s wardrobe and Alice’s looking glass form portals into other worlds, allowing their characters to step outside of chronological time. When Smith reads Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, she becomes enchanted with the portal in his book, an abandoned well.

Murakami’s combination of sci-fi and magical realism evokes other worlds similar to our own, parallel universes that we may enter and inhabit; they shed light on our realities when we return. Undaunted by the terms of fiction, she imagines what the portals of her world may look like.

There is a reason she looks for—a reason she needs—portals. Smith lost her best friend, Mapplethorpe, to AIDS; then her husband, brother, and pianist Richard Sohl to heart problems. These experiences of loss drew her to a contemplative place that Smith describes as a “light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.”[2]

In between the publishing of her first two books, there is an illusory trick performed by literary time. Just Kids chronicles a much earlier time in Smith’s life, and though it’s only published five years afterwards, M Train picks up when she is 68. The child-rearing years in between have vanished. In M Train, Smith is living only with her cats, spending her days reading and contemplating the work of her benefactors. We reenter her life when her children are grown and Fred is long deceased. This has an eerie effect, echoing the process of real time, the question I ask myself—where did all the time go? How did my children grow up so fast?

In literary time, chronological time is collapsed so that minutes, days, years, even centuries get pressed like flowers between the pages, preserving lives and resurrecting memories for the reader. For Smith, time is not rigid or measured. Rather, it is fluid and malleable, like opening the pages of a book at random, jumping back and forth in disregard of a linear narrative. This perception plays a vital role in her thinking.

In contrast, during other passages of M Train, Smith immerses the reader in the immediate demands of her daily routine. What she eats, wears and reads is built into her prose, and through the process of sharing this, Smith allows the reader to go to sleep, dream and wake with her. In between sipping coffee at Café Ino, we journey with her to Berlin, Tokyo, Mexico and Tangier, sharing memories of French Guiana and Reykjavik along the way.

Smith’s metaphor for this sense of timelessness is “a clock with no hands.” At the Arcade Bar, a place that she and Fred used to haunt in Detroit, Smith remembers “there was no time real or otherwise.”

Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory.[3]

The trinity of memory is a sacred space that she accesses in order to connect with those she has lost; gaining entrance involves devotion and ritual. It is as if reading is her religion and the people she mentions are its saints. Maybe this is how my devout grandmother felt about the saints in the Catholic church. Her prayer book was filled with a saint to remedy every problem in life; she had her favorites who she would turn to, most frequently Saint Anthony, for lost things. Loss: Smith and my grandmother have this in common. Smith loses her Polaroid camera, an envelope of Polaroids, her favorite black jacket. With my grandmother it was frequently her keys.

Smith maintains a dedication and study to her literary pantheon, engaging with their lives, evoking the trinity of memory that holds all that is dear to her. Whether those are historical facts about a long dead poet or personal, shared memories with loved ones who are now gone, Smith keeps them so alive through her imagination, conjuring crystalline moments.  She walks the verse and prose of writers long deceased like a bridge into the past. It is her unconscious world, yet interconnected with others; through thinking and imagining she weaves the invisible web that connects us with others.

Dreams offer Smith access, but also passages in books; visits to the graves and houses of the artists and writers she admires; Polaroid photographs she takes to document these visits; and objects she collects that are connected to these people in some way.

“These are modern times,” observes Smith, uninhibited by the common boundaries of time and space. “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 future.” [4]

Staring at one of her Polaroids over her desk, an image of Schiller’s table, she muses:

Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time. A curtain of purple wisteria partially conceals the entrance to a familiar garden. I take my seat at an oval table, Schiller’s portal, and reach across to caress the wrist of the sad-eyed mathematician. The separating chasm closes. In a wink a lifetime, we pass through the infinite movements of a silent overture.[5]

In M Train a reoccurring character from her dreams prods her to write the book. This mysterious character, Cowpoke, appears at the beginning and reappears throughout the book, taunting her onward through the journey of her writing.

The Cowpoke serves as a messenger from the otherworld, “a left-handed version of a numinous voice.”[6]  Appearing to Smith in her dreams amidst a vast, expansive Western landscape, he presents her with a variety of riddles centered around a main theme: “It’s not so easy writing about nothing”—as if that is her missive. M Train performs this magic trick for us. In it, Smith makes something of nothing; she makes art. Smith has the ability to pull him from another dimension into the real world because she found the connecting door. As the Cowpoke appears and reappears to her, she pays attention, she remembers, and these dialogs allow her to travel back and forth.

The book itself has become a portal, the means by which Smith strengthens and vivifies her relationship with her benefactors. Her practice, this connection and meditation on her benefactors, is like a conceptual altar filled with her associations and memories, ideas, and favorite passages of their writing. This is where she goes to meditate on their meaning and importance.

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, before me, stretching out her arms.[7]

Reading Smith, time and space get blurred together in the playground of my imagination. As a child, I remember jumping on a roundabout, spinning around so quickly I lost my ground, and entered some other place, the space inside my mind. I’m off to re-read “Shadow Cities” by Andre Aciman, an essay my daughter told me about. I want to find the passage that describes how being in this tiny park in New York makes him think about all the other cities he has lived in, and how he can evoke a small essence of each, depending on which direction he gazes. It reminds me of what Smith said about Tangier, how a lot behind the bait store in Detroit “seems the true Morocco in my memory.”[8] Wherever we go, it’s how these places get mapped upon our minds that matters most, and it’s up to us to find the best way back.

[1] Patti Smith, M Train (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 71.

[2] Smith, M Train, 25.

[3] Smith, M Train, 83.

[4] Smith, M Train, 213.

[5] Smith, M Train, 215.

[6] Smith, M Train98.

[7] Smith, M Train, 208.

[8] Smith, M Train, 72.

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