Over the weekend I read Just Kids, a biography by punk poet Patti Smith about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. I was astonished by her linguistic radiance, her capacity to make even the most banal of moments enchanted and acute. I did not know much about Smith – I remember looking at stunning and fearsome photos of her in Interview Magazine in the 1990’s and assumed she was a reckless, iconic, somewhat talented drug addict rocker.
Smith and Mapplethorpe met on the streets of New York in the late 1960s and immediately found in one another a confidante, an ally, a lover, and a source of unwavering inspiration. They made a pact to stick together and this book is the narration of that enduring promise. Smith winds her words through New York street life and encounters ranging from fleeting moments to lifelong friendships with such luminaries as William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Janice Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepherd, Jimi Hendrix, and Brice Marden. The book is the story of finding authenticity in fleabag hotels, clarity of vision in the darkest moments of rejection and fear, and each ultimately finding a distinct voice - through poetry, collage, photography, or punk rock – that transcended the cacophony and messiness of life.
In describing her belief in Mapplethorpe’s profound genius, Smith describes that “it is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or a tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys. Robert infused objects, whether for art or life, with his creative impulse, his sacred sexual power.”
Just Kids begins with an account of one of Smith’s earliest recollections of walking along a river with her mother. “The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage. Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky. The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.”
Smith, as she describes Mapplethorpe's "creative impulse, his sacred sexual power" infusing objects with magical life-breath reflexively and intuitively describes herself. Her husband once said that every photograph Mapplethorpe took of Smith ended up looking just like Mapplethorpe. They were bonded to the end, two lives navigating the thin line between chaos and creativity, theirs an integrated existence of life as art and art as life.