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Patti Smith | Year of the Monkey (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) Amazon | Indie bookstore | public library

To get a grip on turning 70, Patti Smith wanders around the US and a few other parts of the world. Detailed dreams and confusing engagements with characters both imaginary and real, including hotel signs, her own boots, and mirrors, demand much of the reader. It’s worth the effort. Smith’s travelogue is truly interesting and profound when she reveals in gorgeous prose-poetry what’s happening—what’s really happening with her.

Smith’s earlier work Woolgathering is full of visions and imaginary encounters, but its haunting, mystic realm is convincing. Year of the Monkey, by contrast, gets mired down in patches by dreams and visions that are more dead-ends than poetic vistas. 

Ernest, Smith’s main imaginary friend in Year of the Monkey, pops up, often unexpectedly, from California to Virginia. At a cafe in Virginia, they drink tequila and watery vodka. (Yes, bartenders in cheap restaurants in Virginia don’t keep vodka cold, so they put bar ice in it.) After some talk about movies, Ernest says: “Everything comes from the heart. The drunken heart. You ever been drunk? Really drunk? I mean drunk for days, lost in the romance of everything down, pitched in the swirl of absurdity.” 

Smith doesn’t answer, but I will. Yes, I’ve been really drunk. Maybe you have, too. Those occasions indeed shaped up as a swirl of absurdity, and there was, unfortunately, pitching involved, but they sure weren’t romantic. Well, maybe that’s just me. Ernest is cast as the gritty everyman, with Smith playing the disingenuous sidekick, but the duo’s joint insights read as contrived; they just don’t resonate. The fantasy conversations throughout the book often go down like that.

What with such flimsy flights of imagination, if I had less faith in Patti Smith, I might think, here’s a celebrity writer who’s lost her way and is relying on, maybe even hiding behind, her persona rather than digging deep for truths that illuminate the world we share in her book. It’s possible, too, that her celebrity has made her guarded even in memoir / poetry. But Year of the Monkey has treasures to mine. 

The work emerges to vivid and poignant life when Smith immerses herself in the world revealed by her senses, unobscured by discursive fantasies, though still permeated by her imagination and sentiment. These passages deliver images clear and precisely placed. In an airport: “Children seem animated, paper dolls in little jackets pulling along their own suitcases adorned with the badges of their own travels.” At a beachfront hotel in Los Angeles: “In the morning, I watched the gulls swooping by my window. It was closed, so I could not hear them. Silent, silent gulls. There was a light rain and the hair of the high palms swayed in the wind.” A cafe in Virginia is humorously salted with her favorite noir tropes: “It was a third-rate cafe bar.… Hard-luck joes, bookies and stoolies, the last vestiges of an era only a dirty cop would recognize. I scanned the layout as I entered. Same scattered tables, yellow-flecked linoleum floor, a few booths.” 

Her sojourn with her old friend Sam Shepherd, wasting from Lou Gehrig’s disease, is deeply moving; I would gladly have read a whole book about their time together, their conversations, their silences. Smith knows how to inhabit an enduring, inspiring friendship. She knows how to convey, too, the joy that friends impress on each other’s lives, and the grief of imminent separation. (She really doesn’t need Ernest.) After a day spent as Shepherd’s amanuensis, as writing for him is too physically difficult, she steps outside his house:

Unable to sleep I get up and go outside to breathe the air, looking up at the stars and listening to the crickets and the bullfrogs in full throttle. I use the flashlight on my phone and return to the garden of the house. The black butterflies are still there, motionless, covering a portion of the ledge of the garden wall, but I can’t really tell if they are dead or just sleeping.

Year of the Monkey, by Patti Smith


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