Woolgathering/Patti Smith: Reflections

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What are we to make of Woolgathering, this hand-sized book by the legend Patti Smith? First published in 1992 as a Hanuman Book and described by its author (years later, upon its re-release) as absolutely true. The book, legendary singer/writer tells us, was such that in its writing Smith was drawn from her "strange torpor." Here she is, looking back:
In 1991 I lived on the outskirts of Detroit with my husband and two children in an old stone house set by a canal that emptied into Lake Saint Clair. Ivy and morning glory climbed the deteriorating walls. A profusion of grapevines and wild roses draped the balcony, where doves nested in their tangles.... I truly loved my family and our home, yet that spring I experienced a terrible and inexpressible melancholy. I would sit for hours, when my chores were done and the children at school, beneath the willows, lost in thought. That was the atmosphere of my life as I began to compose Woolgathering.
There are photographs in this slight book—many of clouds, many of childhood places. There are concentrated memories, phantoms, distillations intensely personal and inescapably vivid. Some of the passages begin like the beginnings of psalms, or songs, while others break toward a private vocabulary.

Here is a line:

Exclamation! Questions of origin, scope.

Here is a scene, a codex, a rebus:

How happy we are as children. How the light is dimmed by the voice of reason. We wander through life—a setting without a stone. Until one day we take a turn and there it lies on the ground before us, a drop of faceted blood, more real than a ghost, glowing. If we stir it may disappear. If we fail to act nothing will be reclaimed. There is a way in this little riddle. To utter one's own prayer. In what manner it doesn't matter. For when it is over that person shall possess the only jewel worth keeping. The only grain worth giving away.

Woolgathering is a book of parts. It is a prayer set into motion. It is a return to child awe, a vindication of at least some part of adult responsibilities to make sense of things, to cohere. What do our minds do when we let them roam and wonder? Something perhaps, like this. Let Patti Smith lead the way.

Thanks to my friend Elizabeth Mosier, I will be seeing Patti Smith this coming Thursday evening at Bryn Mawr College. Elizabeth knows what a huge Patti Smith fan I am (I could not stop raving about Just Kids, for example (a book featured prominently in my forthcoming Handling the Truth), or about Smith's interview with Johnny Depp in the pages of Vanity Fair). She knows how proud I was of her piece about Smith in her alum magazine, here. And she knows that, even if I cannot find just the right cocktail dress to wear (because I end up looking so lousy in all of them), I will stand proudly at her side on Thursday, when the Main Line welcomes Patti to town.

For more thoughts on memoirs, memoir making, and prompt exercises, please visit my dedicated Handling the Truth page.


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