The cover is a lapidary evocation. Patti Smith in a self-portrait of youth, taken with his now legendary Polaroid Land 250. It is a device that is part of the past and that has fallen into disuse once the cartridges it uses were no longer manufactured, as Smith recounts in the brief prologue. It is an image that could symbolize melancholy for a time that has passed, and for the impossibility of continuing to inhabit it, if only through its technical artifacts.
There is a nostalgia that runs through the books of Smith: a rooting in those people and scenes that are no longer there but still mean. The book of days is faithful to that lineage, but it is also a manifesto for the transcendence of the momentary, for the significance of the trivial and everyday. And a peculiar exaltation of the possibility of the community on the internet.
Patti Smith he created his Instagram account in 2018, at the behest of his daughter. She then posted a photo of her hand as a greeting. As she admits in the foreword to this volume, Smith was convinced to enter the “explosive collage” of digital culture to disprove the fake accounts that exploited her identity. But he soon caught a glimpse of what her daughter had pointed out: Instagram combines image and text in ways that might appeal to her, the cultured and tireless godmother of punk.
A digital instance where the activist, city observer, lover of the youthful fatality of Arthur Rimbaud and Robert Mapplethorpe, of Bob Dylan’s masquerades, of John Coltrane’s heterodox spirituality and of the dreams of freedom of American culture, could turn her gaze. With the arrival of the pandemic, what was a frequent practice became a daily language, created in solitude, which gave rise to most of the material in this book.
a dimension of the book of days it is memory. Smith has been dedicating his latest works to this aspect. We were children, Weaving dreams, M Train and the year of the monkeyall published in Spanish by Lumen, are part of the mosaic with which Smith has turned his experience into a living work.
His way of dealing with the past is by manipulating it and importing it into the present. Why does the memory of a friend come to me when I walk down this street, why do I think of the devotion to the beauty of great artists when I see a figure skater on television? Why bury that seemingly meaningless scene if with it I can bring back to life a world that is gone?
Smith has a militant commitment to the significance of the moment. As an update of the New York punk movement that he leaned into reading poems, among so much noise: “Do it here and now, however you like.” Already before the emblematic album horses (1975), Patti swarmed around the city sucking up stories, images and sensations. Falling in love at every step; of people, books and places. And without the rational prophylaxis of the historian or the journalist, she imprinted that on the sensitive tissue.
The memories that flow now are like voices stripped of the sepia tone of forced, monumental memories, which in the zeal for dates and characters obscure the emotional smoothness of what has been lived. And the lived, for Smith, is the youth in the last modern Paris chasing myths, the adventures in the wild New York of the 70s and the promise of a life of rock & roll, the suicidal acceleration of the end of that decade, and later motherhood and the arrival of adulthood, with its losses and its recognitions. All of this is part of this photo album, which Smith comments at the bottom like a matron of her own memories. And that she shares in the conviction that this is the only way they can stay alive.
what did he discover Patti Smith in the “twisted democracy” of social networks? In principle, instantaneity: the intimate writing that he revealed in his latest books seems adequate for the emotional exposure that is usually part of Instagram. His combination of personal record and universal reflection has what an interesting feed requires: individual revelation of global projection; proofs of life that encourage empathy or envy, that feed the imagination of others about our day.
Secondly, the creation of meaning between the image and its caption. Smith he has the ability to spread his readings, his influences, his friendships and his life in phrases that hide in their synthesis an opening to the vastness of the world. An anniversary can only be the reminder of a life, or of a historical event, or the invitation to think about your legacy in the light of the present and what we do with it. Smith is capable of that operation in a single line, and in the silence that links it to an image.
“It has its positive use and it has its fun use. There is nothing wrong with wanting to show off your new dress that you think you look good in,” she said on Instagram to New York Times. “What is dangerous is developing a self-concept through social media opinion,” he continued, warning “young artists”: “Develop a sense of yourself by the work you do, building your own confidence, listening to your own voice.”
What place is there then for artistic creation in social networks? Are the posts artistic work? Like many lovers of poetry and photography, Patti Smith experiment with them in the digital frame of a smartphone. He takes an impromptu photo, as he did with his old Polaroid, and publishes it along with one or two sentences with a peculiar musicality and depth, which exceed the informative heading. Is it Instagram poetry, the diary of an influencer, digital chronicle?
There is something else, or the intention of something else: the deliberate desire to stop time and give “people a break.” An action designed to break the commercial logic, the state of permanent alert and the anxiety that social networks promote, inserting a stamp that connects us again with the world and its complex infinity. With transcendence (yes, even if it seems exaggerated). With the struggles that took place and those that are yet to take place, with the lives that have passed but left their mark, with those that coexist with us in this time and space, and with the possibility of intervening in the collective state of mind with the agility of a post.
the book of days, Patti Smith. Lumen, 398 pp. $20,000