by Nico Crabtree
“Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backward uniting all time.”
― Patti Smith, Year of the Monkey
Poet, author, rock star, and superior bohemian Patti Smith has proved herself time and time again to excel against all standards of the prevailing art climate, whether it be her long-honored 1975 album “Horses,” which was crucial to the foundation of punk, or the rallying cry against injustice which acts as the opening tracks for her 1988 album “Dream Of Life.”
At her best, Smith fuses together lyrical incantation with an established message, breaking down imitative expression with a purely original style; at her worst, Smith lacks lucid substance, wandering the limbo of meaning and production. Though, no matter the result, Smith has consistently asserted a strong sense of volition in her craft.
Meditative and nostalgic, Smith’s latest memoir, “Year of the Monkey,” chronicles the poet’s grim experience in 2016. Forced to navigate a tense political landscape, Smith must also face intense grief that accompanies the imminent death of two of her closest friends: rock music producer Sandy Pearlman, and playwright Sam Shepard.
In one instance, Smith perfectly expresses the dreary emotion the subject of death exposes her to:
“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. My dog, who was dead in 1957, is still dead. Yet still, I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.”
To cope (or out of pure habit), Smith hastens from state to state: she zips from New York to enchanting California, then recollects scenes in Kentucky and long strolls in Arizona. Each chapter acts as and entry to a musing travel journal paired closely with her distinguished black-and-white polaroids.
Through her travels, Smith’s meditations cover everything from novelist Roberto Bolaño to the essence of sleep, her anxieties toward an impending election, and the book’s titular lunar new year.
Smith weaves this narrative under the conviction of her own imagination; dreams and waking life blur together, imagination and materialism become one, the past and present in constant conjunction.
Smith herself describes this state of mind as “skating the fringe of dream.” In one passage, Smith details the morning after a restless night in a Santa Cruz motel, obscuring the realm of sleep and wake:
“First it was morning, then night, then dawn, and the rays of the sun-warmed everything. I left all thoughts of the world behind and followed my dream to the sea. The seals were sleeping, save the king, more like a walrus, who lifted his head and bellowed at the sun. There was a sense that everyone was gone, a J.G. Ballard kind of gone.“
“Monkey” serves as the third installment of Smith’s previous two pieces of nonfiction: the 2010 National Book Award-winner memoir “Just Kids,” and the beautifully hypnotic 2015 memoir “M Train.” Though dubiously connected, it’s suggested to read the books in chronological order, as the dream-like sensibility fully realized in “Monkey” is mastered by rote from the reader.
After “Just Kids,” Smith abandons the use of quotation marks and instead paraphrases the dialogue in both “M Train” and “Monkey” with parenthetical statements grounded only by em dashes. This adds greatly to the stream-of-consciousness quality the two books exhibit and separates them substantially from the grounded manner of Smith’s first memoir.
“M Train” has many notable parallels to Smith’s latest memoir, both in style and in subject matter, but there’s a sense of Smith still unearthing her voice in “Monkey”’s predecessor. Offering some of her most refined prose yet, “Monkey” proves more efficient than “M Train” in comparison. With a consistent conveyance that perfectly fulfills the theme by the end of the story, “Monkey” “skims the fringe” of a poetic triumph.
Despite Smith’s spellbinding intonation, at times her memoir falls victim to futile meandering. Instances where Smith’s recollections are clouded by the description of a dream or an obscure allusion disrupt the flow of a nearly polished memoir.
No matter, Smith still hones her writing’s elegance in “Year of the Monkey.” From the wistful first pages to the atmospheric end, “Monkey” proves Smith the presence of an undeniably adroit storyteller; and forgiveness for her wandering memory is bound to follow.