Patti Smith's Cure for Insomnia

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M Train© Patti Smith

We publish an extract from Smith's new book M Train, revealing her poetic antidote to sleeplessness

"For a time I did not dream. My ball bearings somewhat rusted, I went round in waking circles, then on horizontal treks, one touchstone after another, nothing actually to touch. Not getting anywhere, I reverted to an old game, one invented long ago as an insomnia counterattack but also useful on long bus rides as a distraction from carsickness. An interior hopscotch played in the mind, not on foot. The playing field amounted to a kind of a road, a seemingly limitless but actually finite alignment of pyrite squares one must succeed in advancing in order to reach a destination of mythic resonance, say, the Alexandria Serapeum with its entrance card attached to a tasseled velvet rope swaying from above.

"How many times have I played this game, always falling short of the swinging tassel, but at the worst winding up in a dream somewhere?" – Patti Smith

"One proceeds by uttering an uninterrupted stream of words beginning with a chosen letter, say, the letter M. Madrigal minuet master monster maestro mayhem mercy mother marshmallow merengue mastiff mischief marigold mind, on and on without stopping, advancing word by word, square by square. How many times have I played this game, always falling short of the swinging tassel, but at the worst winding up in a dream somewhere? And so I played again. I closed my eyes, let my wrist go limp, my hand circling above the keyboard of my Air, then stopped and my finger pointed the way. V. Venus Verdi Violet Vanessa villain vector valor vitamin vestige vortex vault vine virus vial vermin vellum venom veil, suddenly parting as easily as a vaporous curtain signaling the beginning of a dream."

“It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” begins Patti Smith’s new book, M Train, which comes out today. It’s a pithy opener precisely because, for so many readers, Smith’s writing is utterly comprehensive and all-encompassing in its scope. In Just Kids, her quiet ruminations on life and love and the construction of one’s identity voiced the inner monologue of generations of young artists wanting to break away from their expected trajectories. Her debut album Horses broke down generic boundaries between the then-separate fields of poetry and art, precipitating a landslide shift in punk rock. Her artistic collaboration with her former lover Robert Mapplethorpe, in which the pair created hundreds of photographic portraits, still life compositions and installations, has been romanticised to the point of fantasy. And yet, she continues to write in a way which distils the very essence of purity, musing on the nature of artistic creation through a firsthand account of a life well-lived, never failing to capture the contemporary moment. Her voice is completely beguiling in its simplicity.

M Train is as poetic a tome as we have been led to expect from Smith, but with a more reflective edge than her previous works. Written with a touch of the stream-of-consciousness that marks her out in a sea of overwrought accounts, the book charts the artist’s life through a prism of coffee shops visited, books read, artists revered and past experiences remembered

M Train by Patti Smith is released today, published by Bloomsbury