With a Monkey on Your Back: Patti Smith’s ‘Year of the Monkey’

I finished Patti Smith’s newest memoir, Year of the Monkey, within earshot of the Crooked River in, fortuitously enough, Smith Rock State Park. Several birds and an airplane added to the river’s babbling. In the morning, M and I climbed, then he went for a run and I hunted up this sheltered spot to finish the book, to write, and to be.

It was a glorious autumn day at Smith Rock. The night before was cold, so cold I awoke to a tent fuzzed with frost. But as the sun rose and radiated off the rocks, it grew warm, nearing hot even, except for an intransigent breeze, kicking up from time to time, a poltergeist whispering that the season is changed and changing, the year drawing ever closer to a close.

Image result for patti smith year of the monkey

Year of the Monkey cradles grief by representing it as the breakdown of solidity, a force revealing the permeability between “reality” and whatever lies beyond it. It remains unclear if this transitiveness arises from old age, the miseries of the world, or simply Smith’s incomparable brain.

Ghosts past and soon-to-be haunt the book, most notably her friend Sandy, confined within a coma, and Sam Shepherd, working through his physical decline, trying to finish one more book, refusing to bow to the indignities of old age. But spirits from earlier memoirs pop up too— husband Fred, beloved friend Robert Mapplethorpe. And they share space with more lively personalities—a chatty pickle-business owner, a half-mad activist poet wanderer, a smug motel sign.

I have often wondered how hard it is for the aged to watch this moment in history and wonder if this is to be the last of what they see. Smith confirms: it sucks. Her turns to direct political commentary are the book’s weakest moments, but only because they are the most clichéd and least subtle. It seems even Patti Smith struggles with how to describe and understand this particular era in American and global history. But she excels at describing the experience of being her, watching friends and meaning and infinite potential fade away.

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

These were the words kinetically trailing, as if that damn sign had followed me all the way back to New York City. I sat up with a start. I guess I had nodded off briefly at my desk working on my computer, for a redundant train of errant vowels ended an unfinished sentence.

—Needed are proofs. Only proofs grant the mathematician true distinction.

—To say nothing of the poet detective, I reply grumpily.

YOM, “Intermission” (95)

The book overall wanders on the border of dreaming and reality, slipping back and forth between them, often so slyly I could not tell where one began and the other left off. Is the whole book recounting a dream? Or is what we call reality equally surreal and inexplicable? I imagine asking Patti these questions, only to have her shrug, put on her watch cap, and head on down the road.

2 thoughts on “With a Monkey on Your Back: Patti Smith’s ‘Year of the Monkey’

  1. Pingback: 2019 Reading List and Top 10 | Dogs, Coffee, & Books

  2. Pingback: Going Off Book: Quarantine Celebrity-ing, + Notions, Late April Edition | Dogs, Coffee, & Books

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