New Directions rereleased Patti Smith’s tiny book Woolgathering last year with more writing and new photographs in a hardcover: the back reproduces the lines, “Everything contained in this little book is true, and written just like it was. The writing of it drew me from my strange torpor and I hope that in some measure it will fill the reader with a vague and curious joy.”
I read the 77 pages in an hour or so, watching the sun set from my dorm window. I fell asleep at one point and woke up a few minutes later to the sound of loud music blasting from a passing car and was pulled apart with thoughts of where I was and where I wanted to be. Nothing about the book put me to sleep; rather, I wanted to be dreaming, in the field or India or café of Smith’s description, instead of inside a giant 19th century brick building. And in the way the best books take you somewhere else, I forgot it was late afternoon and that I was supposed to be answering emails and organizing my calendar and just read.
The memoir is prose and poetry combined. Some sections of prose are more poetic, while there are standard poems included as well. The photographs are mostly Smith’s own, unless they are old family portraits. The dedication page is for her father, and the “To the reader” section explains her father’s reaction to the volume when he read it, years ago. There is his authoritative presence hanging over the poetic lines, as many of the sections describe scenes from Smith’s childhood, and others diverge into travels. Where she is on these travels is deliberately vague, and description comes in the form of mellifluous metaphors and phrases as movements instead of placemarkers.
What she is describing is much less important than how she describes it. The sections on her childhood are full sensory experiences. A young Patti Smith asks an old man in the town about the dead in the cemetery, and he responds that they were “woolgatherers.” This motif travels through the book, as when she dreams she wanders among them, “with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”
The memoir does not recount the famous parts of Smith’s life, the way the 2010 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction Just Kids does. I didn’t expect it to, although the author’s name probably drew in more than a couple curious readers. It stands on its own, for someone who can only name two Patti Smith songs, as a dreamy memoir by one who is an artist above all else.
This book is tiny, and I struggled to find any words more luminous than those within its pages to review it. It’s the type of book to reread, and the type that I (a big fan of marginalia) did not mark up. Not all of the sections meet the tenor of others, but every new passage surprises.
“I had a ruby. Imperfect, beautiful like faceted blood. It came from India where they wash up on the shore. Thousands of them—the beads of sorrow. Little droplets that somehow became gems gathered by beggars who trade them for rice. Whenever I stared into its depths I felt overcome, for caught within my little gem was more misery and hope than one could fathom.”
by Danielle Bukowski