Many people use the final days of December to take stock of the year -- counting their blessings or wallowing in regret. Maybe this is because, as Dana Gioia writes in Summer Storm, “Memory insists on pining/For places it never went,/As if life would be happier/Just by being different.” So how would our lives be different if we had chosen to speak when we remained silent, if we could take one action or one conversation back?

In classes I often ask students to imagine their own parallel lives. In my book Wordplaygrounds I call this sort of poem a Sliding Door poem (after the Gwyneth Paltrow movie). I got the idea when I read the following two poems from two different collections on the same night:

Sun Times

Walking down the apartment hall
I saw a 35-cent Chicago Sun-Times
on the floor in front of a tenant’s door
I was tempted to steal it
but I thought some more:
If I take that 35 cent newspaper
the tenant will hold a grudge
and talk back to his boss
who will in turn fire him.
And he will go back home
and try to find another job unsuccessfully
and he will get resentful and beat his wife
day and night until she can’t take it anymore.
And she will shoot him dead to save her life,
but most likely, the judge being a man,
to save his gender’s face
will give her 99 years.
And meanwhile their little son
will be sent in tears to an orphanage
where he will grow up secretly psychotic
but with some luck will be befriended
by the Democractic Precinct Captain
who plays Santa Claus every Christmas
And he will get into politics and graduate
from law school, still a fool
but with a lot of clout.
Then he’ll become an Alderman
Then Chicago’s mayor
Then Illinois Governor
Then he’ll become president...
Then one morning at the White House, when his aide
brings him the morning world newspapers
he will realize that one is missing
and he will start cussing and hissing
just like his daddy
and he will blame the Russians
and before you know it
he will push the red button sending off
huge atomic missles
and Russia will retaliate
and the whole world will blow up
and then we’ll all be dead!
So I left the newspaper
by the door instead.

-- David Hernandez

I Go Back to the House for a Book

I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor’s office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,

another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,

a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me –
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.

Sometimes I think I see him
a few people in front of me on a line
or getting up from a table
to leave the restaurant just before I do,
slipping into his coat on the way out the door.

But there is no catching him,
no way to slow him down
and put us back into sync,
unless one day he decides to go back
to the house for something

but I cannot imagine
for the life of me what that might be.
He is out there always before me,
blazing my trail, invisible scout,
hound that pulls me along,

shade I am doomed to follow,
my perfect double,
only bumped an inch into the future,
and not nearly as well-versed as I
in the love poems of Ovid –

I who went back into the house
that fateful winter morning and got the book.

-- by Billy Collins

I like the pairing of these two poems because they represent a study in contrast: Hernandez's poem is funny and full of quick rhymes; Collins uses stanzas with an even number of lines and a much slower cadence. Hernandez's speaker fantasizes; Collins' speaker philosophizes. Most of all, the speaker of Sun Times considers an action he did NOT take; I Go Back... considers an action that was taken.

Here's what one student named Annie wrote last week when I invited a class to enter one of life's sliding doors:

My Last Birthday

Seventeen is the perfect age, young enough to be desirable to anyone, and old enough to be taken seriously. When I blew out the candles
on my cake September fourth, I should have stopped aging.
Though the world would not change greatly, my world would be
completely different. Life would be so much easier.
I would get a tan without causing skin damage. I would do gymnastics forever. I would stay young.
I would learn Chinese fluently and become a business owner, a doctor,
and a lawyer; after all, I would have all the time in the world.
The word hurry would have no meaning to me. I would travel
to Rome, Egypt, and India, and I would always be there for my family.
My grandma once told me, "Youth is wasted on the young".
I would never know what she meant.

Originally Published: December 23rd, 2009

John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...

  1. December 23, 2009
     Aseem Kaul

    I'm reminded of Szymborska's Railroad Station

  2. December 31, 2009
     Gail White

    Probably my own best attempt at a "sliding door" poem was one that began "Where was I when all the smart women/went off to law school?"\r

    I still wonder what would have happened if I had gone to law school - the default position for college graduates today - instead of opting to pursue poetry.\r

    One thing for sure: I'd be richer.