Last Loves

I recently posted a review over at WLA of Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, her memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a lovely book. I won’t repeat myself (and you should read the book!), but I’d really like to share how moved I was by Ms. Smith’s treatment of her husband Fred Sonic Smith. Indeed, I was so struck by this quoted passage in a review, that I put it on my list despite knowing little about any of these artists:

“Of the man who was to become my husband, I wish only to say that he was a king among men and men knew him.”

That’s some gut-punch-good writing. After reading the book and looking up details online, I learned that Mr. Smith died quite young in 1994. Ms. Smith’s words about her husband were written sixteen years after his death. Last love.

I first heard the notion of last love when I saw this video by poet Rachel McKibbens. (Read the text of the poem at Muzzle.)

“Know that your first love will only be the first.
And the second and third and even fourth
will unprepare you for the most important:

The Blessed. The Beast. The Last Love,

which is, of course, the most terrifying kind.”

My grandmother lived a devoted widow for twenty years; when someone suggested she date or remarry, she twisted her wedding band around her finger and said, “I made a vow, till death.” She never said it in words, but I know she thought my grandfather a king among men (he was), and that was all she needed to say, as well.

But certainly times changed between my grandparents’ 1941 wedding and Patti Smith’s wedding to Fred and even Rachel’s naming of her last love. My grandmother would not say she “wasted too many clocks on less-deserving men”. She had no one to whom she could compare my grandfather. But in each of these loves holds a small universe of possibilities, and a fierce choice in the final, the mature, the last love.

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  1. Interesting that you specifically call out Smith’s relationship with Allen Ginsberg, because it was at Ginsberg’s memorial service that I first became a fan of Patti Smith. Held in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, it was not just a smoothed over lineup of celebrity tributes, though Smith was in the company of Philip Glass, Natalie Merchant, and other A-listers. It was a true memorial with rambling tributes from many of the less presentable of Ginsberg’s associates. When Smith’s turn came, she got up on the stage in front of the Great Altar and picked up a worn book with many ragged markers in it to read Ginsberg’s poem on the funeral of his guru, and his inevitable grief despite his attempts to stay detached and observant as he had been taught. She cried and raged and read aloud with trembling voice and then launched into a loud, raunchy performance of Gloria, not the churchy Latin Gloria but the raunchy rock song originally by Them.

    She won me over that night, and I devoured Just Kids with intense curiosity and fascination. I think it’s a bit self-serving, but the survivors get to shape the history. Mostly it is very tender and charming. If you liked Just Kids and want more about her relationship with Mapplethorpe, check out her 1996 book The Coral Sea. It’s a little chapbook of her dream-like elegies paired with his mysterious photos that captures her raw grief in the immediate aftermath of his death. For those of us who lost so many close friends in the AIDS generation, this book gives voice to a lot of the sense of inevitability of letting go. It’s an excellent pendant to Just Kids.

    • Oh, Camille, what a heartbreaking and lovely story. In Just Kids, it was clear how much love and respect she has for her mentors, it’s very, very sweet and a good lesson for younger artists to take. I will add The Coral Sea to my list.

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