I Made a Door
Took a plank and sawed it in half, the pieces small, horizontal, I painted them white, then drilled the hinges in. Outside the house I climbed a ladder, up to the fold of roof over roof, gap to the attic. I took a hammer. I took the door, my homespun contraption, one-way swinging thing, and drove in the nails, forbade for once raccoons and possums from entering the darkest of rooms, but not from leaving. Or so I believed. Sounds over my head the following week, paws on wood, the tapping claws, slow rasp of fur scraping against the air ducts. Next morning I walked the perimeter of the house, I turned in right angles, eyes to the eaves. One thought. Two. How did he slip in? What other errors will my muddling hands make? Failure enters the mind, finds a fissure and burrows into the marrow of me. Says I am flawed from head to heels. Says I am all mistakes down to my cells, then amends my serotonin. I was wrong from the start: the door made me. from Hoodwinked (Sarabande Books, 2011)
I am thinking of this poem this week because I read this poem this week. I read it for the first time — believe it or not — in a book titled 5 Steps to a 5: 500 AP English Literature Questions to Know By Test Day. I was the one who assigned the book. I ordered copies for my AP Literature class to practice with during a few weeks of test prep prior to the AP exam, which is in just over a week.
One of the most difficult parts of being a teacher — at least for me — is managing the needed outcomes for learning determined by the state, or the world, or some standardized bureaucratic force (like the College Board) with the outcomes for learning determined by each individual, or by each collective community, or by the desire for a world of people who are thinking holistically, compassionately, complexly, creatively, insightfully, empathetically, patiently, and critically. The two outcomes don’t always work in tandem; in fact, I often think they rarely do, even if they sometimes rely on the same skills.
And so, this time of year — end-of-year-test-time — is always a little difficult for me, because, even though a standardized, often high-stakes test has practical outcomes, such as college credit, or high school credit, or potential access to opportunities rooted in high scores (opportunities that might promise someone something tangible, such as a form of economic freedom or mobility), such outcomes often come at the expense of so much, including (but certainly not limited to): testing anxiety, a way of thinking of learning as something competitive, a way of thinking of a text as something meant to be “figured out,” and the introduction of violent language (ie. process of elimination) into the framework of reading, analyzing, and trying to understand.
And it’s funny how often adults — myself included — justify this strange method of growing up and into the world, perhaps because we underwent the same process. We say things like you have to learn the rules in order to break them, seeming to lament the thing we are forcing onto our students, knowing intuitively that it is divisive and reductive, and yet still — we do it.
I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom, and was struck by a passage early in the book:
we go to art—or, at least, many of us went to it at some point—precisely to get away from the dead-end binaries of like/don’t like, denunciation/coronation—what Sedgwick called the “good dog/bag dog rhetoric of puppy obedience school”—all too available elsewhere.
Earlier in the book, Nelson writes:
But there’s a difference between going to art with the hope that it will reify a belief or value we already hold, and feeling angry or punitive when it doesn’t, and going to art to see what it’s doing, what’s going on, treating it as a place to get “the real and irregular news of how others around [us] think and feel,” as Eileen Myles once put it.
In these passages, Nelson is criticizing what she views as a reductive and perhaps ungenerous and unimaginative tendency in criticism and in our culture (for what it’s worth, I find myself agreeing with Nelson at times and feeling challenged by her at times and wondering if she oversimplifies or generalizes at times), but, reading this as I prepared to usher one of my classes through two weeks of absolutely dry test prep (think: multiple choice practice, multiple choice answers, any questions?, repeat), I couldn’t help but think of my aforementioned point, the way that our current method of testing reading comprehension — up to and including the highest levels of standardization, such as the AP Literature Exam — reifies a way of viewing a text that is inherently reductive, that reinforces the binaries of right and wrong, meaning and not-meaning, best and worst, and so on and so forth. I know that, in the passages above, Nelson is lamenting a way of reading and thinking through transgression, but — and this is me simply wondering — I can’t help but think that, if we are taught a multiple-choice way of analyzing a text, we will perhaps apply a multiple-choice way of analyzing a person: All of the above are true except; All of the above are false except; What word or phrase best expresses the character of who you are; From the following, the we can infer this about the person we are looking at or talking to (choose one).
Yes, one of the hardest parts of teaching is encountering the unimaginative in what you are supposed to teach. I don’t yet know how to get around this. To wholly subvert it is to deny your students the opportunity to learn how to achieve agency through the act of subverting a system itself. To refuse to recognize the possibility of subversion is to deny students the insight of your mind and your own curiosity, a curiosity they can model, tinker with as their own, or disagree with.
I encountered today’s poem in a test prep book littered with multiple choice questions. I liked the poem. I liked the images, the staccato rhythm. I loved the lines:
What other errors will my muddling hands make?
I loved, too, the lines:
Failure enters the mind, finds a fissure and burrows into the marrow of me. Says I am flawed from head to heels. Says I am all mistakes down to my cells, then amends my serotonin.
I loved this realization on the other side of action, this depiction of a self as something smaller than imagined, and yet — through this realization — larger in a different way, perhaps more connected, more willing to admit one’s interdependency, one’s fluidity, one’s anything-other-than-solidity.
But, it’s funny. What immediately followed this poem were eight “AP-level” multiple choice questions. I stood around as my students read and annotated this poem and then moved through these questions, crossing out answer choices, circling others. And, thinking about what to write this week, I thought about what it might mean to subvert these questions and this process. I thought about what it might look like to resist the idea that we need to come to a poem for answers, for something that is “right,” something in opposition to what is “wrong.”
And so, as you read the rest of this post, you will find those eight multiple choice questions. I have copied them out below. But, I have changed the answers. There are five answers to each question. Don’t bother thinking of any of them as wrong. Don't both worrying about rightness. Don’t bother crossing any of them out. Don't even worry about circling them. Think of them as avenues of thought — ways to try to approach a poem with generosity, ways to subvert what we think of when we think of test. There’s no grade at at the end of this. There’s nothing to grade at all. Let’s try this out.
A shift in this poem is most evident
In each repetition of the word “door” offering a door to walk through, a way of reading the feeling of your body into the space of the poem
In the hinge it makes of your mind, that swinging feeling that allows you — just as the poem allows itself — to be wrong.
In the ongoing space where it widens — the poet writing Or so I believed — into the unknowable.
In that moment of white space when you realize something small, just fleeting — a story of your life when you, too, felt overcome by your flaws.
In how, at the moment of the poem’s end, you know you can return to the poem’s beginning.
Which of the following best conveys the effect of lines 12-14 (“Sounds over my head the following week, // paws on wood, the tapping claws, slow rasp / of fur scraping against the air ducts.”)
Perhaps you remember the sound of a dog you once had, who, trying to break into a run on the wooden floor of your house, scampered its paws against the wood in a fit of excitement.
Perhaps you’re thinking now, as I am, of how to wish that sound back into the world, that little rush of life that let you know such life was living.
Perhaps, too, you’re grateful for the way the poem sings such sounds back to life, even if it is about a possum or a raccoon, that tapping, that rasp.
Perhaps you’re hearing the sounds of things, now. The click of a clock. The beating of your own heart.
Perhaps it’s all around you now, as it is in these lines, the sound of life itself.
The questions in line 18-19 (“How did he slip in? What other errors // will my muddling hands make?”) function in all of the following ways except
What is this exception? Can I object to it?
If not now, then later?
Can a poem grow to become more than what it is?
And the answers we have for what we are asked — can such things change?
How can I accept that I will continue to make an error, at times, out of life?
The poem implies parallels between all of the following except
See answer A to question 3
See answer B to question 3
See answer C to question 3
See answer D to question 3
Sometimes I see myself in a poem, and sometimes I see the world. Sometimes I look for parallels between a poem and my life, and sometimes I realize that looking for such a thing is perhaps selfish, or wrong. But I look and I look and I look. I enter the door of the poem, which has no parallels other than itself, and wander through the world it makes of the world.
The phrase “amends my serotonin” (line 24) most nearly means
These feelings — they are so fleeting and yet feel so final, despite what Rilke said.
Suddenly, sometimes, the whole darkens and one’s stomach bottoms out; you see grey even when there is light.
Sometimes I wish I could change myself at will.
Sometimes I feel myself in need of so much fixing.
That word — amends — can mean so much; it can mean the act of being healed; it can mean what we bring to others in order to heal the hurt we have caused.
The actions attributed to “Failure” (line 20) are distinct in that
They enact the way in which, in a moment of anxiety or stress, we sometimes feel as if we have become our worst selves.
They remind you of Shame, the capital-S sense of it, the dark heart of our hearts.
They hurt, don’t they, reminding you as they do of the fissure of you, that part of you so easily broken it is already cracked?
They sing, as feelings sometimes do, whistling or sizzling or burrowing or drumming against the inside of our skin.
Maybe, too, they make you laugh. Do they? Just a little laugh?
The effect created by the final statement is best described by which of the following?
The gentle whoosh of wondering, even recognition.
The a-ha, the miraculous, perhaps surprise.
The softness of allowance, the forgiving sensation of humility, the words on the tongue — I was wrong from the start.
The gentleness of giving-in.
The acceptance of an offering — the permission to refuse the act of making ourselves, to allow ourselves to be made, over and over again, by this world as we live in it.
Which of the following best characterizes the development of the poem as a whole?
It grows in me as it changes; it says you don’t have to say you know it all; you don’t have to know it all, not at all.
In the white space between the lines, the world walks into poem, even when it is attempted to be shut out.
The poem starts out being right and ends up being wrong; in doing so, it models a way of rightness that is rooted in humility.
The poem offers a way to let go of our power; it begins in agency and then relinquishes it. It permits rather than controls.
It sings the whole way; it sings its entire song.
As you can perhaps tell, it’s not that the questions asked are inherently bad. It’s interesting to think of tone, and effects, and shifts — to think closely of words and phrases. But what is often difficult — particularly about the AP exam — is that it coaches students to look for one, singular right answer, even when multiple answers hover around that sense of “rightness.” It’s anxiety-producing, often confusing (even for me), and it resists every potential avenue for expansiveness. You can read closely and still be expansive; in fact, I’d argue that you must read closely in order to move toward the universal and the expansive and the critical and the interesting and the strange. But, these high stakes exams often teach us to read closely in order to be reductive.
Some might say that it’s important that students are taught that not everything is right. But that seems to me a scared, flawed argument. To dictate what is right — especially when it comes to such an expansive act as reading — is to exert a sense of control over the world. A world of less consistent and more interesting and interested readers, readers who have been taught (and allowed) a tendency toward the imaginative and the critically generous (which does not mean, exactly, superfluously positive), is a world that challenges that control. I’m interested in what that challenge looks like, its unpredictable generosity, its beauty, its subversion, and its love.
I had the honor of having two poems published in the newest issue of Good River Review, out of Spalding University. You can read them here. I have a finished manuscript of a book of poems circling around the idea of light — both of these poems are from it.
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All questions adapted from 5 Steps to a 5: 500 AP English Literature Questions to Know By Test Day (McGraw Hill, 2021)
I enjoyed your discussion of the inherent contradictions in having to teach poetry according to some pedagogy while trying to teach freedom of thought. It seems that the students who end up loving poetry the most are the ones who have strong encounters with it outside of, or in addition to, school.
That line about failure finding a fissure and burrowing and amending...wow.
I have no doubt that your struggle with how to handle the reductiveness is well conveyed and eagerly consumed by most of your lucky students. Thank you.