Something delightful about Patti Smith is that she frequently agrees to do unusual gigs. Most of the time it’s a charitable endeavor, because Smith has never cared about making money. She just makes whatever kind of art she wants and freely gives it to interested parties, especially those backed by a good cause. For a long time now, I have been waiting for Smith to say something new—something identifiably and strikingly different from other things she’s said. So I often pick up tiny bootlegs or monographs from her more obscure happenings and hopes that the ones done under less general scrutiny offer her a place to experiment. In this manner, I consistently set myself up for disappointment.
Smith does not experiment. She has oddball moments or works in differing genres, or includes some kind of artwork, sure. But the content of Smith’s voice—her actual modes of thinking, her romantic trademarks, and the conclusions she draws about how we should live—have remained steadfast and consistent for more than 40 years. Across her body of work there is a very particular attitude. This is despite tonal shifts; she can be confrontational, rhetorical, melancholic, or ecstatic in tone, but the attitude sliding around under everything she does has a constancy to it that seems impossible. It was hard to find in someone so young when she was young, and it still seems untenable to maintain in someone so experienced enough to know better.
She’s an unquenchable optimist. Not the glass half full, turn the other cheek kind of naïve person who goes on smiling as morons slip their dogs of war. Smith’s optimism is a type of soldiering on—one that can wade through grief, one that can expect an upside to be revealed In the flames of failure, and one that can absorb anger to transubstantiate it into good deeds. It’s this last quality that shines most clearly in the pages of her newest obscure thing: The New Jerusalem, a long prose poem just published by The Nexus Institute, in the Netherlands.
The mission of The Nexus Institute is to study European cultural heritage in an artistic and philosophical manner. Its founder and president, Rob Reiman, is the author of two books on nobility and fascism (To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, W.W. Norton, 2018, and Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, Yale University Press, 2009). Other thinkers in the Nexus series include luminaries such as Jonathan Sacks and Sonia Gandhi. Reiman’s introductory essay to Smith’s poem makes explicit the fact that artists engage in a religious activity when they make their art. For Smith, the purpose of imagination has always been as a rudder for the ship of her conscience—she uses art to envision a better world.
Well, don’t we all? Yeah, exactly—but you may have noticed that since Trump took office, there has never been more art with less optimism. News journalism has fallen into a state of sarcasm rife with editorializing adjectives. Street art has devolved into little more than trolling three billboards at a time. And, wow, the poets are very, very angry. It’s no great leap to assume Smith is not supportive of Trump. As The New Jerusalem is her first official product both written and published during the Trump presidency, I was keen to know what she’s doing with the anger and anxiety she no doubt feels to the same extent as the rest of us. I’d been waiting for her work to take some kind of new turn, but it’s the times that have turned—and now I’m damned grateful for Smith’s unerring constancy.
The New Jerusalem is a prose poem of 14 pages broken into seven sections with a handful of accompanying images. The sections: “A Matter of Time”, “What Manner of Herald Flies Over”, “Triumph and Deceit”, “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup”, and “A Time of Gifts”. The images: three photos of her handwritten manuscript in progress, one photo of the bombed out skeleton of the South Tower of the World Trade Center that she took in 2001, and Leonardo da Vinci’s oil on wood Salvator Mundi painting. Is this teensy volume it worth 20 euros and an hour of your time?
The opening sections depict a new era presided over by “controllers, cultivators and mercenary priests ” (25). Anyone bloody but unbowed has fled. The resistance is led by “girls in purple rain coats” who “infiltrate the forbidden zone”, asserting their existence and “eluding virtual crucifixion” (27). “Triumph and Deceit” depicts the brutal ceremonial slaughter of one hundred oxen that, to my thinking, unquestionably constitutes Smith’s portrait of Trump’s inauguration. It’s a moment when “the rabbits scurry and know they are called rabbits” (29).
Leonardo’s portrait of Jesus, “right hand raised in benediction, the left holding the orb of the world”, still sees “the holy city within us” as “salvation scavengers” try to recover the artistry and history that has lived inside humanity from the sixth day until this new era (31-32). In place of anger, Smith delivers “Prophecy’s Lullaby”. She moves from present tense, where we are keepers of the flame, to future tense, where we are the New Jerusalem realized. In the final two sections, “we” becomes “I” as Smith takes her own lullaby to heart. She relates a dream where she receives the gift of a communion cup and then extends such a “Time of Gifts” to everyone.
Though Smith has always been easily identified as “a tribe of one”, The New Jerusalem cultivates her sense of being in the army of tribes of one, of being a slice of “the voice of the sixth day” (39). Her goodness proves inexhaustible, and art is the method of its dissemination. Smith’s is a voice that has never depleted. Her buoyancy remains as staunchly resilient as ever. Whatever anger has landed on her heart in the jungles of Trumplandia, she consistently performs the miracle of putting it down.
Really, you can listen to any of her albums or pick up the memoirs and find this same energy. Similar to Devotion, Smith is spending more time thinking explicitly about how and why she uses her voice. The New Jerusalem should prove as timeless as her other works of art—but because it is gifted to us at precisely this moment in the Age of Trump, it arrives as a salve like no other. For a few minutes at least, I was able to put my own anger down. Though we are radically uncertain of how long our present future will the last and deadly sure that it must end, it feels very good to bridge that anxious gap with faith in the prophecy of Patti Smith.