Woolgathering by Patti Smith – review

Smith's vivid sequence of memoir sketches has lost none of its quiet power in this augmented 20th anniversary edition

The original Woolgathering, a collection of sketches published 20 years ago in a volume the size of a deck of cards, holds talismanic significance for some Patti Smith devotees. Capturing moments of her adult life, Smith pares down her prose to a state of vivid impressionism, so enigmatic that even ordinary acts – preparing mint tea, nodding off while sewing – take on spiritual weight. Smith cuts a lonely figure, offering a clearer view of herself in the act of observing than of what she observes.

She admits to feeling a "terrible and inexpressible melancholy" at the time of writing. "How happy we are as children. How the light is dimmed by the voice of reason," she remarks, and the passages evoking her childhood do reverberate with serene joy, accompanied by photographs familiar from any family album: a six-year-old Smith in the bath with her younger siblings, or standing in the garden wearing a paper crown.

Writing was not Smith's first choice – "I considered becoming a painter but I didn't have the stuff," she laments – but any fans of her music will not be surprised by her mastery of it here. They may, however, be surprised at her next literary endeavour: Smith is currently writing a crime novel set in Sweden and London.


Helen Zaltzman

The GuardianTramp

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