Keeping Things Whole
by Mark Strand
"Keeping Things Whole" isn't the most flowery poem in the world. In fact, it's the opposite. It uses a minimal amount of words, few adjectives and almost no detail whatsoever. Well, there's detail, but the speaker stays vague, especially when talking about nature. However, in such a short poem, the presence of both "field" and "air" play vital roles in accentuating the speaker's feelings about his existence. They're backdrops against which the speaker defines himself, but in a funny way, because he's the part of nature that is missing.
- Line 1: Nothing spectacular there except that it's the first image of nature we get. The speaker wants to place us somewhere in the poem, so we know where we are, although we're not in a particular field, just "a field." It's vague, but intentionally vague, because the speaker uses the field as a physical manifestation of his absence. In other words, he needs to give us something concrete to imagine so that he can create the contrast of "absence."
- Line 3: Here's a variation of line 1. What's interesting is that the speaker has placed the statement, "I am the absence" in between lines 1 and 3. So, just like his presence is the absence within nature, line 2 splits the image of a field into two different lines. But his line "I am the absence" wouldn't make any sense, or would seem less powerful, if it weren't sandwiched between two lines about "field." The image of the field is necessary for the speaker to describe his "absence" and so he's tied to the natural world even though he feels separated from it.
- Lines 8-9: The speaker carefully chooses the word "air" because it's natural, something necessary for life, something we're tied to, something that goes both in and out of our bodies as we breathe; yet, for him, the air moves out of the way as he walks. This is another contrast the speaker uses to emphasize his feelings of isolation. The speaker feels invisible, and yet the invisible parts of nature move out of his way. It's like the natural world is rejecting the speaker, but the images also give us a strong sense of why the speaker eventually says, "I move / to keep things whole."
- Lines 11-12: Think of a stage with curtains. The curtains part, a man appears and the curtains close. Now imagine the curtains are invisible because they're just air. And imagine the speaker walking through the parts in the curtains that are just air and then watching those curtains close behind him. Now reread lines 11-12 again because Mark Strand's version is so much better than ours. But really, the speaker is like this empty space that moves through the world, pushing the world away as he goes. Even the air flows around him. But, the speaker uses the contrast of his body as an absence within the natural world to create startling, concrete imagery that embodies his feelings of isolation.