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lip lit: woolgathering

‘There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book.’ – Patti Smith


Patti Smith is a punk rock feminist icon. A songwriter, poet, visual artist, and prose writer, she has put her hands in many pies, pissing off the establishment in the process. This offering is far more folk and good feelings than punk rock though.

Her book, Woolgathering, was recently re-released by Bloomsbury. Originally published in 1992 by Hanuman Books, Woolgathering was a delicious site to behold: ‘A Hanuman Book was only 3 by 4 inches in size, like a tiny Indian prayer book that one could carry in one’s pocket.’ I’m not too good with imperial measurements, but it seems that Bloomsbury has kept the crux of the idea: this edition of Woolgathering is pocket-small. It’s a beautiful object.

Of course, how books look probably isn’t exactly what Patti Smith meant when she called them ‘beautiful’.

Woolgathering is a series of autobiographical vignettes. Smith creates little windows into her childhood. It is in these little moments in which her emotional life is captured. They are fractured, forming no real narrative arc, she says that she aimed to ‘fill the reader with a vague and curious joy’.

That it does. In fact, the vagueness is fully realised as a series of impressions which are at times surreal. The little book even borders on magical realism in moments. There is a story she tells about her dog Bambi, who she is forced to give away because of her beloved younger sister’s allergies. The dog somehow knows that he is about to be given up. Intuition and knowledge without reason is key to this book, ‘it is one of those inexplicable things’.

Insights are found in impressions and moments. They are not necessarily gained in a cohesive or grand or stereotypical way. Further, the everyday elements and little objects commonly found in the course of life can still be meaningful markers.

Take the ruby for instance. Smith describes her tatty knapsacks, ‘my happy burden’. She notices though that is she focuses too much on the possessions contained within, they have a way of disappearing.  The ruby is one of those things. ‘Caught within my little gem was more misery and hope than one could fathom’. She obsesses over it and it disappears. Yet, she remembers exactly how it looks and when she turns her mind back to it, ‘I can feel the dust of Calcutta, the gone eyes of Bhopal. I can see prayer flags flapping about in the warm, iconic wind’. In that one ruby (and even just the memory of it) exists a lesson about obsession and a host of special images. Little things are drenched in meaning.

There is a certain beauty in the richness of Smith’s symbolic life. But, as one would expect from a poet and songwriter, there is also beauty to be found in the fact that she chooses words well. If you were to just listen to the words of Woolgathering without understanding them, they would still sound nice, like a song.

Woolgathering has several layers of beauty, and is a compelling reminder of why it is the material book is so special to many of us.

Woolgathering, Bloomsbury, $19.00

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