A generation after a little boy named James Baldwin reached for that liberty and read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon at the local library, a little girl named Patricia Lee Smith read her way from a poor rural community in southern New Jersey to the world’s stage and the world’s heart, soon to become the voice of generations and one of the most original, revolutionary, and generous artists of her time, of our time, and of all time.
In consonance with that lovely parenthetical line from one of Nikki Giovanni’s poems celebrating libraries and librarians — “(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book.)” — Smith writes of the endearing, almost unreasonable devotion with which she sought solace for her nine-year-old troubles amid the stacks:
Every Saturday I would go to the library and choose my books for the week. One late-autumn morning, despite menacing clouds, I bundled up and walked as always, past the peach orchards, the pig farm and the skating rink to the fork in the road that led to our sole library. The sight of so many books never failed to excite me, rows and rows of books with multicolored spines. I’d spent an inordinate amount of time choosing my stack of books that day, with the sky growing more ominous. At first, I wasn’t worried as I had long legs and was a pretty fast walker, but then it became apparent that there was no way I was going to beat the impending storm. It grew colder, the winds picked up, followed by heavy rains, then pelting hail. I slid the books under my coat to protect them, I had a long way to go; I stepped in puddles and could feel the icy water permeate my ankle socks. When I finally reached home my mother shook her head with sympathetic exasperation, prepared a hot bath and made me go to bed. I came down with bronchitis and missed several days of school. But it had been worth it, for I had my books, among them The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, Half Magic and The Dog of Flanders. Wonderful books that I read over and over, only accessible to me through our library.
Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.
In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen parable. She writes:
I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.
The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.
The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.
This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.
“One cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.”
By Maria Popova
“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.
There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.
That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.
Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.
As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.
Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.
She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.
In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:
He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.
There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:
Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.
A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:
Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.
There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.
Her daily routine at the motel is itself an existential allegory:
Every morning I’d make my coffee in a tin pot, rustle up some beans and eggs and read of the local occurrences in the newsletter. Just negotiating zones. No rules. No change. But then everything eventually changes. It’s the way of the world. Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine.
Dead friends travel with her as the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg — “an expansive hydrogen jukebox, containing all the nuances of his voice” — warm her pocket on a lecture tour. A book acquired in a thrift shop — Gérard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist novella Aurélia, the manuscript of which was found in the author’s coat-pocket when he hanged himself in 1855 — seems to speak to her directly: “Our dreams are a second life.” Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit from the radio in the wake of an election that uncorked the madness of hate and the madness of apathy.
Her voice, one of laconic suffering, produced shudders of admiration and shame. I pictured her sitting at the bar, a gardenia in her hair and a Chihuahua in her lap. I pictured her sleeping in a rumpled white skirt and blouse on a diesel-fueled tour bus, turned away from a white Southern hotel despite the fact that she was Billie Holiday, despite the fact that she was simply a human being.
Patti Smith pictures this while sitting in a late-night bar in Hell’s Kitchen, mourning for her friend and for her country, and I picture her silver braids falling to either side of the shot of vodka and the glass of water she has ordered, despite the fact that she is Patti Smith, aglow with the fact that she is simply a human being.
Again and again her thoughts return to her dying friend — the poet and music maverick Sandy Pearlman — and with him, inevitably, to death itself, to the finitude of being with which we all must live:
We met in 1971 after my first poetry performance, Lenny accompanying me on electric guitar. Sandy Pearlman was sitting cross-legged on the floor in St. Mark’s Church, dressed in leather, Jim Morrison style. I had read his Excerpts from the History of Los Angeles, one of the greatest pieces written about rock music. After the performance, he told me I should front a rock ’n’ roll band but I just laughed and told him I already had a good job working in a bookstore. Then he went on to reference Cerberus, the dog of Hades, suggesting I should delve into its history.
— Not just the history of a dog, but the history of an idea, he said, flashing his extremely white teeth.
I thought him arrogant, though in an appealing way, but his suggestion that I should front a rock band seemed pretty far-fetched. At the time, I was seeing Sam Shepard and I told him what Sandy had said. He didn’t find it extreme at all. He looked me in the eye and told me I could do anything. We were all young then, and that was the general idea. That we could do anything.
Sandy now unconscious at the ICU in Marin County. Sam [Shepard] negotiating the waning stages of his affliction. I felt a cosmic pull in multiple directions and wondered if some idiosyncratic force field was shielding yet another field, one with a small orchard at its crux, heavy with a fruit containing an unfathomable core.
The harsh reality of it all takes on a surreal air. She watches anime clips on a loop as she slurps flying-fish-roe spaghetti in San Francisco, waiting for visiting hours at the hospital. The Pied Piper haunts her days and dreams, until on her way to sit vigil with Sandy, she suddenly realizes that the story is “not essentially one of revenge but of love.” The prospect of imminent loss clarifies things in this way, reminding us that every story — no matter how enturmoiled by the surface confusions of jealousy and blame — is at bottom a love story and a time story.
“You don’t follow plots you negotiate them,” she wants to write with the candy-stripe pencil that rests on her dying friend’s bedside. Instead, exhausted with travel and grief, she drifts into another existential dream:
The pencil seemed far away, well beyond my grasp, and I actually watched myself fall asleep. The clouds were pink and dropped from the sky. I was wearing sandals, kicking through mounds of red leaves surrounding a shrine on a small hill. There was a small cemetery with rows of monkey deities, some adorned with red capes and knitted caps. Massive crows were picking through the drying leaves. It doesn’t mean anything, someone was shouting, and that was all I could remember.
Yet, somehow, life tumbles on; somehow, we must make meaning. Watching the terrifying turn of her age — age in the sense of cultural era, age in the sense of the personal timespan one is allotted between the bookends of nothingness — Smith writes in the dead of New York City’s coldest winter on the record:
Across America one light after another seemed to burn out. The oil lamps of another age flickered and died.
The cat was rubbing against my knee. I opened a can of sardines, chopped up her share, then cut some onions, toasted two slices of oat bread and made myself a sandwich. Staring at my image on the mercurial surface of the toaster, I noticed I looked young and old simultaneously. I ate hastily, failing to clean up, actually craving some small sign of life, an army of ants dragging crumbs dislodged from the cracks of the kitchen tiles. I longed for buds sprouting, doves cooing, darkness lifting, spring returning.
Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the Year of the Monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating… I try to be more aware of the passing hours, that I might see it happen, that cosmic shift from one digit to another. Despite all efforts February just slips away, though being a leap year there is one extra day to observe. I stare at the number 29 on the daily calendar, then reluctantly tear off the page. March first.
By springtime, the strangeness is no longer the Lewis Carroll kind but an outright collective insanity:
April Fool’s Day. A kind of madness swept the course of every action, magnifying every reaction. Balls of confusion rolled toward us, scores of steely shooters, tripping us up, keeping us off-balance. The news pounded, and minds raced to make sense of the campaign of a candidate compounding lies at such a speed that one could not keep up, or break down. The world twisted at his liking, poured over with a metallic substance, fool’s gold, already peeling away.
It is the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart that haunts me. It is Sandy slipping in and out of consciousness, battling a run of bacterial infections, while mapping his own apocalyptic scenarios straight from the bowels of the Heart o’ the City Hotel. I can hear him thinking, I can hear the walls breathing. Perhaps a break is needed, an intermission of sorts, withdrawing from one scenario, allowing something else to unfold. Something negligible, light and entirely unexpected.
Again, she converses with the Dream Inn sign in desperate search of clarity, of reassurance, of that inextinguishable flicker of hope:
I did not ask the sign how my husband fared in whatever space was allotted to him in the universe. I did not ask the fate of Sandy. Or Sam. Those things are forbidden, as entreating the angels with prayer. I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.
Slowly, methodically, the tapestry unspools from the enchanted loom of this uncommon mind, revealing the pattern Smith has been weaving all along, reminding us that dreams — that the secret lives of the unconscious — are not an indulgence or a plaything, but a vital vessel into which reality is poured, lifted to the lips, and tasted more intensely.
In the final chapters, she writes:
I was never so hungry, never so old. I plodded up the stairs to my room reciting to myself. Once I was seven, soon I will be seventy. I was truly tired. Once I was seven, I repeated, sitting on the edge of the bed, still in my coat.
Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards, uniting all time. We repair a watch, optimizing an innate ability to reverse, say, all the way back to the fourteenth century, marked by the appearance of Giotto’s sheep. Renaissance bells ring out, as a procession of mourners follow the casket containing the body of Raphael, then sound again as the last tap of a chisel reveals the milky body of Christ.
All go where they go, just as I went where I went… These were not ungraspable dreams but a frenzy of living hours. And in these fluid hours I witnessed wondrous things until, tiring, I circled above a small street lined with old brick houses, choosing the roof of the one with a dusty skylight. The hatch was unlocked. I removed my cap shaking out some marble dust. I’m sorry, I said, looking up at a handful of stars, time is running and not a single rabbit can keep up with it. I’m sorry, I repeated, descending the ladder, conscious of where I had been.
Reflecting on these clarifying dreams, vibrating with worry for our shared future, worry that “the blood of benevolence may not be infinite and will one day cease to flow,” Smith reminds us that the only remedy for a broken reality is more truth:
One cannot approximate truth, add nor take away, for there is no one on earth like the true shepherd and there is nothing in heaven like the suffering of real life.
The book ends with “A Kind of Epilogue,” in which Smith fathoms the oceanic abyss of losses in the Year of the Monkey — Sandy’s death, the last white rhino’s death, the massacre of schoolchildren, the injustices against immigrants, “the flames engulfing Southern California the collapse of the Silverdome and men falling like chess pieces carved from the weight of centuries of indiscretions and the slaughter of worshippers and the guns and the guns and the guns and the guns” — and reaches, with a lucid and luminous hand, for the source of buoyancy that is our only lifeline:
This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows… No one knows what is going to happen… not really.
Returning to Virginia Beach, that epicenter of her dreaming away from and into reality, she finds herself pacing the boardwalk in search of Eamsean telescopic perspective:
I knew there had to be a brass telescope mounted somewhere on the boards and I was determined to find it, not exactly a telescope but an instrument of beyondness, right on the esplanade… My pockets were brimming with coins so I set up camp and concentrated, first on a freighter, then on a star, and then all the way back to Earth. I could actually see that ball the world. I was in space and could see it all, as if the god of science let me peer through his personal lens. The turning Earth was slowly revealed in high definition. I could see every vein that was also a river. I could see the wavering illness air, the cold deep of the sea and the great bleached reef of Queensland and encrusted manta rays sinking and lifeless organisms floating and the movement of wild ponies racing through the marshes overrunning the islands off the Georgian coast and the remains of stallions in the boneyards of North Dakota and a fleet of deer the color of saffron and the great dunes of Lake Michigan with sacred Indian names. I saw the center which was not holding… And I saw the ancient days. There were bells tolling and wreaths tossed and women turning in circles and there were bees performing their life-cycle dance and there were great winds and swollen moons and pyramids crumbling and coyotes crying and the waves mounting and it all smelled like the end and the beginning of freedom. And I saw my friends who were gone and my husband and my brother. I saw those counted as true fathers ascend the distant hills and I saw my mother with the children she had lost, whole again. And I saw myself with Sam in his kitchen in Kentucky and we were talking about writing. In the end, he was saying, everything is fodder for a story, which means, I guess, that we’re all fodder.
“The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation.”
By Maria Popova
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,”William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.
But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.
Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and again throughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside.
In 2007, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Smith edited a selection of his verses simply titled Poems (public library) — “a bit of Blake, designed as a bedside companion or to accompany a walk in the countryside, to sit beneath a shady tree and discover a portal into his visionary and musical experience.” She channels her reverence for the eternal artist into the uncommonly poetic prose of her introduction:
The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence. A newborn cries as the cord is severed, seeming to extinguish memory of the miraculous. Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos.
William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein. The celestial source stayed bright within him, the casts of heaven moving freely in his sightline. He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation; offering songs of social injustice, the sexual potency of nature, and the blessedness of the lamb. The multiple aspects of woven love.
His angels entreat, drawing him through the natural aspects of their kingdom into the womb of prophecy. He dips his ladle into the spring of inspiration, the flux of creation.
He is a messenger and a god himself. Deliverer, receptacle and fount.
Smith ends her introduction with a splendid invitation, or perhaps an incantation:
William Blake felt that all men possessed visionary power… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.
To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Walk with him. William Blake writes “all is holy.”
That includes the book you are holding and the hand that holds it.
In this recording from a 2011 benefit concert for the Wadsworth Atheneum accompanying the opening of her exhibition at the museum, Smith tells the story of the notebook in which Blake wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — a little black sketchbook that belonged to his brother Robert, whose death devastated William — and she sings his iconic poem “The Tyger,” as it appeared in Blake’s original manuscript from the small notebook held at the British Library: