Keeping Things Whole
by Mark Strand
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
In a field
- Not the most inspiring opening line to a poem, right? Our speaker gives us a location: a field. Great, that narrows it down to almost anywhere on planet earth.
- It's also a prepositional phrase, rather than a complete thought or idea. That means it's enjambed with the lines that follow. We get the sense we'll be reading down, not across, when we tackle this poem.
- So we're located somewhere, but we don't know who or what is in the field, what type of field it is, or whether it's even real. This guy gets points for brevity, but he might not be the best person to ask for directions.
- The brevity also creates a sense of ambiguity. Although the first line sounds vague, it's intentionally so. We're not on firm ground here, and that's okay for now.
- Finally, we can assume place will be important here. At least, the speaker has chosen to give the reader nothing else but a location in the first line. If that's all we get, then that must be what he wants us to focus on. So, field. Location. Space. Got it? Good. Let's move on.
I am the absence
- Great, now we've got the "absence of field." Not exactly sure what that is, but the speaker has created a clear relationship between himself and his location.
- You might think of this as a metaphor, but he could also be speaking literally. Let's dig in to figure it out.
- There's the field, and there's the speaker in the field. Only, he's the part of the field that is "absent," kind of like Sting in this video.
- In a way, he has put two opposite things together. He opens with "field" and then immediately says he is the "absence" of field. It's like his presence negates the space he started with.
- Try thinking of it this way: there's the physical space of the field, and the physical space your body takes up. Where you are is not part of the field, because you're taking up that space with your body, so you're filling space that used to belong to the field.
- The shape of the poems helps, too. Lines 1 and 3 both have the word "field." In between line 1 and 3, the speaker says, "I am the absence." So, just like his body takes up space in the field, line 2 snuggles up in between the two lines that use "field," right?
- There's a funny doubling thing going on, too. Saying "I am the absence" is tricky because that line actually takes up space, splitting up lines 1 and 3. So, in a sense, the statement is doing the opposite of what it says. Rather than an absence, line 2 is actually a presence in the poem. Deep stuff, we know.
- On the other hand, this fits perfectly with the dilemma our speaker finds himself in. His presence in the field is also an absence of the field. It's like his body is multitasking and doing two things at once, just like saying "I am the absence" is a line that involves both presence and absence at the same time. Phew.
- On a simpler note, the speaker sticks with short lines here. Notice in line 3 it's "of field" rather than "a field" in line 1. Sounds like he's referring to the general idea of a field, rather than any specific one. This guy is sort of spacey and getting a little abstract on us.
- By now, we're pretty sure this poem isn't written in any traditional form. Our speaker is just freewheelin' it through the field, throwing caution to the wind, free verse style.
- Still, there is some formal stuff going down here. Just because there is no rhyming doesn't mean there isn't some formal play at hand.
- Notice how line 2 breaks on the word "absence"? Putting a word at the end of line adds emphasis but this is extra cool because the speaker ends the line on "absence" and then nothing but blank space follows. The line ends and then there is an absence of other words that follow on that line. The sudden enjambment creates this feeling and reinforces what the speaker is trying to say. Keep an eye out for more moments like these, and check out or section on "Form and Meter" for more.
always the case.
- The speaker says he's always the "absence" but his tone is unclear. In some ways, he sounds bored, like, "yeah, it's always like that, so what?"
- But he also sounds trapped in this problem of being the "absence" of wherever he finds himself. That could be terrifying, right? No matter where you go, you're what doesn't exist! Yikes.
- Enter another awesome free verse line break. Line 4 is only two words long, but less might be more for our speaker. Just like he ended a line with "absence" in line 2, here he ends line 4 with "is."
- Breaking the sentence at the verb creates a massive hole in what the speaker is saying. It's like a massive crater smashed into the sentence and broke it up into two lines. You just can't help but keep reading. What is this?
- But what's cool is that massive blank space after line 4. Of course, all lines of poetry will end, but because line 4 is so short, it accentuates that empty space that follows. You could say that emptiness reinforces how the speaker feels. Sort of like he's letting silence speak for him because he feels like a void wherever he goes. Haunting, sure, but it also makes for great lines of poetry.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
- These two lines finish the first stanza. It's almost like a complete, meditative thought has come full circle.
- The speaker says he is "what is missing." It's a lot like the first three lines except instead of saying he is "absence" the speaker is "what is missing." Wherever he is, the speaker feels like he isn't present, or his presence is an absence, or he's both there and not there at the same time.
- What's so confusing is that the speaker combines the idea of being present and absent at the same time—again. So, no matter where he goes, he's missing.
- Think of a hole. The empty space is the actual presence of the hole, but it exists as empty space. Head spinning? Ours too.
- Line 6 creates an even bigger sense of befuddlement and confusion. Imagine one of your friends gets lost and calls for help. You say, "just wait there and someone will find you," and your friend says, "yeah, I'll just wait here, wherever I am." It has that quality of uncertainty.
- On the other hand, the speaker is saying that no matter where he goes, this feeling follows him, as if the feeling itself is the place he's in. It's inescapable, as if he's trapped in the constant threat of not existing.
- The speaker manages to capture a sense of fear and anxiety with extremely simple, clear language, even if the ideas are a bit complicated. That's what we call precision, and that's what makes poems so awesome.
- Also, also, check, check, this, this, out, out: the speaker repeats the phrase "I am," only it ends line 6 and begins line 7. It's an echo, right? It could be a nervous pleading, like someone trying to convince himself of something. Remember the little engine that could that kept repeating "I think I can"? Our speaker sounds like he's trying to convince himself that he exists. "I am / I am" is like a mantra the speaker uses to fight off the idea of not existing.
- The repetition also creates a cool loop. It ends one line and begins another, so it's both the end and beginning, in the same way that the speaker feels trapped in the cycle of being present and absent at the same time. Once again, Strand is using line breaks to imitate the content of the poem.