I work a solitary Burroughs-type job where I don’t do anything much but look out a window. I can’t read or write there, so the only thing I do is think, think about people, and pray, pray for another job. I think about the Beats because I read a great deal of Beat literature. I’ve read so much that I feel I know each personally. Being it was All Saints Day and then All Souls Day, and I had nothing else to do, I prayed for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
Seldom do I remember dreams, but that night I had a dream, a startling realistic dream, that William S. Burroughs bent over me and softly, sweetly, kissed my cheek, and said, “Thank you.” I was so shocked that I woke up. (Remember Burroughs’s story as a four-year-old boy and his Welsh nanny, and the other story of his late life exorcism witnessed by Ginsberg–scary stuff.) All I could conclude was: maybe it’s been some time since anyone prayed for his soul, and being that he was a proper gentleman, he was grateful. By the way, Burroughs never said he was a non-believer. (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”)
The next day I picked up Patti Smith’s book M Train. When I read a personal memoir, I read it not as something by or about a celebrity–celebrity is mostly manufactured and annoying–but I read a book written by a human person, one person to another. Solitary Smith seems lonely, and she probably is. The Widow Smith obviously loved and misses her husband. Her children are grown and gone. Her parents and brother and friend Burroughs are dead. Her beloved city, New York, moneyed Manhattan, the West Village, is so changed from her youth, there seems little for her there except what she calls her room and her table at her café. Smith sits around and drinks coffee and prays and lights candles and cares for her cats, like other old ladies (like me), but flies around the world to speaking engagements when it suits her. She earns enough income from her appearances working one summer that she arranges to buy a bungalow on the beach in working-class Far Rockaway, Queens. (Today, an 800 sq ft bungalow on the ocean is listed at $375,000.)
I was set to dislike this book, not because of the author, but because of the publisher (and all publishers). What gets published? Books by celebrities, that’s it. The greatest writer in the world is not going to get his or her book published, unless that person is a celebrity. That’s the way of the world. The book is boring, but that’s okay because it’s boring about interesting people and places and books, not mindless drivel. Smith writes about praying and saints, even the Serbian Orthodox Saint Sava, and the Samaritan woman at the well, and in a poem “I saw my love return to God” so credit her for being a thinker, and not an overtly politically-correct hack, as I find in almost a hundred percent of the currently published books I pick up and fling in the garbage. Her first sentence, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” There you have it, from her own pen, and she repeats this several times. If you enjoy a book written about nothing (but life), this is a good one.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…