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Year of the Monkey

Review by Miles Lowry

Year of the Monkey
Patti Smith
Knopf Canada
192 pages, 2019

In Patti Smith’s latest book Year of the Monkey, poetry, prose and photography meet in the dreams, journals and polaroids of this passionate visionary. Life as an ordinary citizen often merges with her life as a gifted performer allowing for an on-the-road lifestyle and occasionally a drifter’s existence. Falling under the spell of the Monkey in the Chinese zodiac, Patti Smith has crafted a present time memoir full of mysteries and revelations, one that thrives on innocence, chance and luck. As the Monkey year approaches she learns that her great friend and supporter Sandy Pearlman has fallen into a coma. Facing the worry and waiting of the hospital visits she becomes restless and travels the Pacific coast dividing her time between the real-life motels and coffee shops she inhabits and newer mysteries born of the literature that has become her life-blood.

With prose stretching through occult boundaries and spiritual yearning she somehow remains rooted in a “ham and eggs” America filled with ominous signs and signals of decay. The restorative power of words and the great writers she cherishes come to the rescue again and again as she traverses another America. This time she is at the mercy of the presidential campaign that brings her country through the year of the Monkey into the Dog year and the doom and gloom of a despotic leader.

In Year of the Monkey Smith dreams of the labyrinthine places we must go to become more human. Her heartaches are romantic challenges to the ethos and her ability to travel through time and space seems to allign with the poet’s desire to shift consciousness at will. Family, lovers and friends and many who have passed away come to life in her delicate recollections. Brought to the edge of these remembrances we are given a brightened image, a transparency held up to the sun revealing its true colors. In contrast, her monochrome polaroids seem to be calling the mundane into a sacred space shaded by the same hand. Here they inhabit a particular place between a happy accident and the moment where words are not possible.

In the process of completing his final book an ailing Sam Shepherd enlists Smith as his accomplice, reading the text to him as he edits. It’s a role that harkens back to their days as companions in times sensitively chronicled in her National Book Award winning Just Kids, the story of her early days with Robert Mapplethorpe. One gets the feeling that with Sam she plays a role she knows is hers alone, the two at work living in the whispers between thoughts. When she stares down at his tattoo she remembers her own, made on the same day.

A dream journal, self portrait and literary exploration,Year of the Monkey finds Smith tramping familiar territory, alone with the ever-present past and the new-found friends of everyday places. Here, Rimbaud’s “I is another” is the rule and the real journey is the one within. It’s the kind of book that might get discovered at a bus station, a reader-worn paperback accidentally left behind by an ernest enigma bent on inspiring future generations to see the truth in dreams.

Miles Lowry is a sound and visual artist, writer and director. His books include Slow Dreams and Blood Orange: the Paul Bowles Poems.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25