Is this a fairy tale? Are the stories true? These were the questions Patti Smith had to answer when Woolgathering was first published in 1992. New Directions recently published an augmented version that includes portions omitted from the original book plus additional observations by the author.
The question is still relevant. Is it a fairy tale? Smith lets us know right away that her story is based on impressions from her childhood, albeit impressions imbued with the soul of a poet. The ordinary and mystical merge together, forming a magic realism where “prose poems” about the night sky, fireflies, or the gentle sound of siblings sleeping in the same room weave together to ignite Smith’s rich world of imagination. Childhood exists on the edge of memory’s beginning, and Smith writes about this twilight time with a lyrical sense of wonder not unlike Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, his own early reminiscence.
A great deal of her childhood happiness is linked with her love of nature. “I searched the clouds for omens, answers. They seemed to be moving very fast, dome-shaped, delicate, connective tissue. The face of art, in profile. The face of denial, blessed.” In the book’s new introduction, Smith reveals that she originally wrote Woolgathering in 1991 during a bout of melancholy. She was living in Detroit with her husband, Fred Smith, and their children, tending to their life, which she loved and yet the melancholy remained. Writing her first book, she said, was cathartic and pulled her out of the darkness.
Last year, Patti Smith won the National Book Award for her second book, the memoir Just Kids, a portrait of her early New York years with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Like the rest of her creative output, Smith’s writing defies easy categorization. Much of the beauty of her writing stems from her reverence for human experience, positive or negative. Grief, like joy, has its own value, and is not regarded as a derelict emotion or something to avoid. Her prose articulates tragedy and loss with a fearless honesty that makes it possible for us, the readers, to face these experiences with her. Woolgathering provides us with another opportunity to glimpse into the artist’s inner life, joys and sorrows, visions and dreams.