How to be Both

Much is being made of Scottish photographer and writer Ali Smith’s new novel How to be Both, long-listed for both the Man Booker and Orange book prizes, and which is to be released in this country tomorrow. (Attention: people to whom I might give it–don’t buy it yourself until after the holidays!)

In it, reports The Guardian, “the textual order depends on an element of chance. The book has two interconnected stories. There is a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father. And then there is an Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

“Depending on which copy you pick up at random, you will either be presented with George’s story first or with Francesco’s. The two narratives twist around each other like complicated vines – one of George’s last trips with her mother was to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa is haunted by strange visions of a teenage girl who uses ‘a votive tablet’ and holds it to heaven ’like a priest raising the bread’. The fact that this votive tablet is an iPad and that the reader is in on the joke while Francesco isn’t, is just one of the witty touches with which Smith splices the novel.”

Such ambiguity is very interesting to me since I came long ago to suspect—and good poetry confirms–that life is never as fixed or events as rigid as we tend to think.

A recent article in the Huffington Post by Carolyn Gregoire suggests, for instance, that we are not neatly either “introverts” or “extraverts,” but, like many existing conditions, fall somewhere on the spectrum:  “To some extent, introverts can behave as extraverts, and vice versa. But if an introvert pushes themselves [sic] to act like an extravert for too long — going out and socializing every night, or putting themselves in too many high-stimulation situations — they’re likely to burn out.

“An ambivert, on the other hand, consistently moves between the two orientations, and is more able to take advantage of the fluid nature. Having a flexible personality allows the ambivert to better adapt to different situations, and to make the most of various personal characteristics.”

This makes sense to me in terms of my own experience.  Thanksgiving, for instance,  for most of us (like many holidays) calls for a very extraverted attitude. People gather in large groups, with all the attendant conversation.  Such surface talk I do not enjoy, but have learned to do fairly well (sometimes digging deeper than etiquette suggests), but I have also found a kind of balance between such dinner-table conversation and one-on-one, more intimate talks, with each member of my family. Doing both keeps me much calmer and more centered.

It is also difficult, I’ve found, during gatherings of even our closest and dearest, to go off by oneself for awhile either just to silence the voices in one’s head and/or to practice some personal activity. For instance, over the long holiday weekend just past, at one point when I was not immediately “needed” for some activity, I went to the piano (in a separate room) and played the Beethoven sonata I’ve been working on. I did not “practice” it: I do have some trepidation about imposing my practice sessions on other people, as repetitive and discordant and filled with mistakes as my practice sessions inevitably are. But I did touch the piano, play for half an hour, and returned, refreshed, to my own beloved hoard of children, guests, and grandchildren. I also discussed a poem with one of my daughters and listened to another daughter play the piano (having seen me do it, she hopefully felt ok with doing it herself).  None of us was being “anti-social,” but that is sometimes how I fear it appears.

In an NPR interview with Ali Smith by Scott Simon, Smith speaks of surfaces and what lies beneath them: “it just intrigued me that there’s the surface which we see, we see for all those hundreds and hundreds of years. And yet, below it, there’s something else that we’re looking at, that we can’t see. And I just was interested to see whether we can apply that structure to the novel.”  Our third daughter, absent from Thanksgiving this year, recently taught me the word “palimpsest,” which means something written or drawn beneath something else (and which I used as a partial title for a recent poem).  It definitely adds dimension and possibility to be able to see/relate to both surface and depth.

Smith goes on to say, “there’s a fabulous poem by the author Muriel Spark called ‘Authors’ Ghosts’ in which she describes coming downstairs in the middle of the night and taking a book off the shelf and looking at it and thinking  that’s not the book I read. This isn’t the end I remember. An author’s ghost has been in there and has changed it.

“So there’s a constant aliveness in the form between us and it as we change. And I think great novels and great stories [and great poems] – they allow for our change and they come anew to us every time.”

I will end with this wonderful poem by Mark Strand, another of that generation of poets who recently died–this week at the age of 80. First published in his 1979 Selected Poems, today it reads like so:



Lines for Winter

                                    for Ros Krauss

Tell yourself

as it gets cold and gray falls from the air

that you will go on

walking, hearing

the same tune no matter where

you find yourself—

inside the dome of dark

or under the cracking white

of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.

Tonight as it gets cold

tell yourself

what you know which is nothing

but the tune your bones play

as you keep going. And you will be able

for once to lie down under the small fire

of winter stars.

And if it happens that you cannot

go on or turn back

and you find yourself

where you will be at the end,

tell yourself

in that final flowing of cold through your limbs

that you love what you are.


So tonight, may we love what we are, what our friends and family are, even what our world currently is, with all our contradictions, ambiguity, possibilities, and hidden shadows.

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