The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

As I’ve said before on the Ramblings, one of my lifelong inspirations has been the creative force that is Patti Smith; ever since I first encountered her music in 1975 I’ve been hooked, and her writings over the years have become just as important as her music. I featured my original Patti book collection some years back when I read her bestselling “M-Train”; I found it a wonderful read and an essential addition to my Patti shelves. Her most recent book, “Year of the Monkey” came out in the autumn of last year and I don’t quite know why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. Nevertheless, I did so during January, and it was a wild and fascinating read.

The recent Chinese Year of the Monkey ran from 8th February, 2016 until 27th January, 2017 and Smith’s book covers that period in her life, a period where many changes were taking place. As I mentioned in my review of “M-Train”, Smith’s life has been scattered with tragedy; the early loss of her husband and brother, the death of her long-time associate Robert Mapplethorpe; and this year saw significant changes too. The book opens with Smith visiting old friend Sandy Pearlman in hospital, where he’s in a coma following a brain haemorrhage; old friend Lenny Kaye is on hand. This sets off a chain of wanderings across the country (and indeed the globe) as Smith negotiates a world undertaking catastrophic changes. Another old friend and former partner, San Shepard, is bedbound and nearing his life’s end; Smith spends time with him acting as an amanuensis. She contemplates the horrors of American politics, encounters (or hallucinates) a fellow Bolano-obsessive called Ernest; and converses with a snarky Dream Motel sign on the West Coast. It’s pure Smith.

‘Hallucinatory’ is probably the crucial word here, as the book (much more so than her more recent works) is a heady blend of the real and the imagined, actual experience and perceived experience. Smith has always been prone to sensing signs,symbols and portents, and that tendency is very prevalent here. It adds up to a beautiful and absorbing piece of work that not only lets you have a peep into Smith’s real world (the leaky skylight of her New York flat, the scrubby garden of her Rockaway Beach retreat) but also the world of her imagination; the visions, the obsessions, the fantasies and the journeys of the mind.

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 noticed 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 the 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.

Again, as with “M-Train”, there is an attempt to reckon with mortality, and also with ageing. As she writes, Smith is approaching her 70th birthday and taking stock of herself. Although I’m a way off that myself, I empathised with her awareness of time running out and the strong need to grasp every moment. But despite her moments of doubt, she is in the end optimistic; and able to hope that despite the horrors of the way her country is headed, the world will sort itself out.

Lenny and I ate our congee and drank oolong tea in silent gratitude, still alive; born three days apart, seventy and silver haired, bowing to fate.

“Year…” is illustrated with Smith’s signature polaroid images which add to the beauty of the whole experience of reading it. And of course, whenever I read Smith there are always striking resonances; she references authors and artists I love (Gogol, Bruno Schulz, Cocteau et al), and I’m reminded that there are people out there who still love the creators that I love too.

Some of my Patti books…

Needless to say, I devoured “Year of the Monkey” in huge gulps, revelling in Smith’s prose, which veers from the factual to the fanciful, often breathlessly. She’s a wonderful writer, with a singular voice which is recognisable whichever medium she’s working in. “Year…” is a poetic, absorbing, entertaining and beautiful book which reminded me just how much I love Patti Smith – as well as sending me off to dig out her music, and drive Mr. Kaggsy crazy! Highly recommended! (The book, that is – not driving poor Mr. Kaggsy crazy! 😀 )