On Stumbles with Patti Smith and The Fragments.


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I’ve started writing this piece to you many times. Each time the words begin to crumble, then fade. The words seem to be resisting the hold of an idea, and the form of what I hope may be useful to you right now- something tangible- is eluding. I have noticed my own frustration and confusion rising as a result. I’ve torn up pages and deleted many words.

It’s scary when the crumbling happens and the blanks seem to lengthen. For someone who hangs so much on words, it is frightening when the lines don’t seem to arrange themselves in coherent, cogent forms. I begin to question if they will ever come back. Then I begin to question everything. 

Instead of wholeness, I find fragments. Instead of coherency, I find tangents. It is a moment which tests, utterly. 

I’m grateful for the power of practice in these times. I’ve learned through the years that the only way through is to move with honesty into what is happening, what’s real and alive in front of me. When I don’t, I’m just resisting the resistance and everything calcifies. So I begin writing, sensing the fragmentary nature of the beginning. I start to write around those fragments- seeing what ideas want to gather. I give myself permission to write something, anything, even if it is scattered, for in the scattering I can at least feel motion. I read some poetry. I go for a walk.  I tear up some more pages. Then I watch a little clip of Patti Smith, and I exhale. I think I may have found the exact bit of humanity I needed, right in the nick of time. 

She is at the 2016 Nobel Laureate Prize giving. The auditorium is full of black tie and Kings and Queens. She is there to perform a song to honour Bob Dylan. She can feel the privilege, and the weight of it. She is wearing a tailored black jacket and a white shirt with a pristine, angular collar. I notice how contained she seems, how compact almost. There are thousands of formal eyes upon her. Then she begins, until she doesn’t. Around the second verse, her voice goes blank, and there is a freeze, then a stumble, and then, ‘I’m sorry.. I apologise, I’m so nervous’. The audience breaks into applause in what seems like an act of recognition. This is humanity and humility both at work. 

So she begins the second section again and I think I love her all the more now, all the deeper. Her insistence on continuance. She sings as best as she can, in that moment, with all her nerves, and she gives it everything, even if she feels that her everything is not quite enough. 

Patti wrote a piece in the New Yorker about her experience. She took her ‘public struggle’, and told us, ‘This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me. I was obliged to stop and ask pardon and then attempt again while in this state and sang with all my being, yet still stumbling. It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,” and ends with the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realisation that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics’.

I get it. Sometimes we feel we are giving our everything, but it feels like it is not quite enough, not as good as it can be. But, in that moment, it is what we have to offer. Even the imperfect fragments, even the stumbles.

So I stumble through my notebooks, gathering the fragments, the broken shells, the ill-formed and the unhatched, and I take a moment to look at what is there. As I zoom away, I begin to see something. It wasn’t an essay I was writing at all. Poetry happens in the most unlikely of places, and especially in the cracks. 


The Loam Woman

Stuck to a place of no traction, 

I am finally ready to fall. 

From the residue of rejections, 

the unknowns, looming large, 

ask me: 

What is the gift of this dire uncertainty? 


A woman with an old voice, 

and hair as white as loam

gallops into my eyes. 


She is evidence of continuance: 


Advance with an openness, 

to what is present, she says, 

let humility be your gait, 

You must sing yourself into the 

lyrics of your own song, 

to truly enter.


Later, as the moon is halved, 

and the stars are veiled in the sea-mist, 

I think of what is behind the real darkness


and can feel only 

the hand of this old woman, 

coaxing me out into the great night

saying, here, 

this is your stomping ground, 

now go, 

write yourself there. 


Now, as I raise my pen to the sky, 

I feel her hands on the cusp my head, 

as if she is stroking the back of a stunned mare, 

kicking and singing, 

rearing her hooves 

into the inky 

strands of the page


into the long long night 

both of us falling deeper into 

our great unknown song. 




May we write our ways into our own song, stumbles and fragments, half-moons and all. 

Until soon, with love 

Clare. x