Study Guide

Keeping Things Whole Quotes

By Mark Strand

  • Isolation

    In a field
    I am the absence
    of field (1-3)

    Wait. What? Our speaker opens the poem with lines that should shock and confuse us. He gives us a place and then he says he is the embodiment of what's missing in that place. He's both present and absent. Paradox alert! His body takes up space in the field and becomes the absence of the field. This is a matter of perspective, of course, but it's through the lens of our speaker that we get a sense of his isolation. Even alone in a field, he feels separated from the field and knows he can never become a part of the world he lives in.

    Wherever I am
    I am what is missing. (6-7)

    Okay, so not only does this happen in a field, it happens anywhere and everywhere. Our speaker insists, "I am / I am" and yet he's insisting that he's "what is missing." He is, sure, but he's always alone, too. It's like he'll never be able to blend into nature, and his mere presence fractures the "wholeness" of wherever he is. Imagine seeing a splintered window with a big hole in the middle. Our speaker feels like that hole, shattering the world around him, and his only solution is to never stay still. Talk about a bummer.

    I move
    to keep things whole. (16-17)

    The beauty of this poem is its brevity, but also its ability to capture complex emotions and ideas with such small words. The last line closes the poem down for us, but leaves us with a strange solution to the speaker's dilemma. It's like he'll just be moving through the world for the rest of his life, never really able to exist anywhere. In fact, it's unclear what his motivation is other than to avoid "breaking up" the world around him. How is that isolating? Not only does the world get out of the way when he arrives, but he feels compelled to "move / to keep things whole." So, anytime he gets anywhere, he ceases to exist. Yikes.

  • Man and the Natural World

    In a field
    I am the absence
    Of field (1-3)

    True to poetic tradition, this poem opens up in nature. We're "[i]n a field" but beyond that, there's no description. This could be to reinforce the speaker's isolation from the natural environment, as if to say, "just the facts, ma'am, just the facts!" But what's different is the speaker's relationship to that field. In lines 2 and 3 the speaker says he is, "the absence / of field," which creates a sense of isolation from his environment. He's both there and not there. The short lines reinforce this sense of fragmentation. Instead of a place where the speaker goes to clear his thoughts or feel one with with nature, the landscape becomes a backdrop for his feelings of being separate from the world.

    Wherever I am
    I am what is missing. (6-7)

    Okay, no natural imagery here, but we do get the all-encompassing, vague, "[w]herever." Just like the speaker is caught up in the duality of being present and absent, "wherever" can be read as an unknown place—like saying, "I don't know where I am"—and as a word that means everywhere. No matter where the speaker goes, he's separated from his location, and that means there's no escape from his feeling left out. Boo hoo.

    When I walk
    I part the air
    And always
    The air moves in (8-11)

    Back to nature, back to the basics. Our speaker really likes to keep it simple. As for descriptions of nature, we get "field" and "air." Can't be more general than that. What seems important here is that "air" parts for him. Think of someone walking through a crowd and the whole crowd splits out of the way while that person passes, and then the crowd reforms. It's sort of like that. The speaker feel so isolated from the world that he can't even be a part of the air—or the party. It's like his body is some sort of protective shell that keeps him separate from his environment. Makes you wonder how he can even breathe, right?

    I move
    To keep things whole. (16-17)

    Check out our speaker's final few words about his relationship with the world. After giving us those startling images of being a man who is nothing but absence in the world, he tells us, "I move / To keep things whole." He doesn't give us anymore about the natural world, but when he says "[t]o keep things whole" he could be talking about the world at large. Is he suggesting that man's presence in the world ruins the natural balance and wholeness of nature? Or that we can never be fully part of the world in which we live? He's not the most talkative guy in the world, so we don't have much to go on, but it's clear his only solution is to keep moving through the world to try and restore it to wholeness.

  • Identity

    I am the absence (2)

    Can we get any more clear and vague at the same time? The speaker in this poem is a master of understatement that reverberates with a meditative insight on the complexity of identity. He just comes out and says it. "I am the absence." But what seems straightforward is actually a complex statement about identity. How can you say you're not there while actually being there to say it? The speaker of this poem defines his presence in the world by saying that he's not a presence and this contradiction is what propels the poem forward like a spinning wheel of reflection that never slows down enough for us to get a handle on it, and that's exactly how our speaker likes it.

    Wherever I am
    I am what is missing. (6-7)

    All right, he could be feeling a little sorry for himself, like the sad Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh of the poetry world, but he could also be trying to define a difficult sense of identity. Sure, we don't know what he looks like, and we don't know how old he is, or what type of clothes he wears or any of that good stuff. But the speaker's choice of vague words somehow captures a clear picture of the speaker's identity. He's always what is missing. If our speaker had a Facebook page, his picture would be a blank screen. Nada. Zilch. Zero. And yet, it's almost as if he's pleading, "I am / I am" to reinforce that he exists. What's cool is he manages to create this sense of identity with such few words. The irony is that he repeats, "I am / I am" yet what he means is "I am not." In other words, his identity is defined by being the empty space in the world.

    We all have reasons
    For moving. (14-15)

    Nothing major here, but for the first time the speaker uses a plural pronoun. Why is that significant? All along the speaker talks about how empty and isolated he is from the world, yet here he refers to "all." In other words, his identity seems to be shaped by how apart he feels from the world, and yet these lines suggest the he still feels connected to the human race at large because they're something like him. So perhaps the picture he's painting of himself could extend beyond himself to the reader, or perhaps this is just another contradiction of our speaker being both "apart from" and "a part of" existence. Ponder away, dear Shmoopers.

    I move
    To keep things whole. (16-17)

    Finally, a bit of resolution from the speaker. For a moment, we thought he was just shying away from giving us his true identity. Although he doesn't resolve the conundrum of being both here and not here, he gives us his motivation for "moving." It's open to interpretation what moving means in this case. It could just literally be motion through the world, as in, he has to keep moving, stay alive, putting one foot in front of the other, so that he doesn't cease to exist. On the other hand, it could be that his identity is so fraught with a feeling of isolation that he doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere. What's that got to do with identity? Well, he's either constantly searching for his identity, or he's trapped in an identity that's defined by not existing. One plus, of course, is that he has the perfect alibi for whenever he's late for an important meeting. "I was there, but you didn't see me because I am what is missing, and you know, the absence." Or something like that.

  • Dissatisfaction

    This is always
    the case. (3-4)

    At this point in the poem, the speaker has already told us he's the absence of field. That idea is strange enough on its own, but lines 3-4 create a sense of dissatisfaction with being absence. In one sense, his matter-of-fact tone could sound like he's totally okay with being absence, but there's also an underlying irritation that no matter where he goes, he can't really be there.

    Line 3 breaks on the word "always" which emphasizes the finality of his dilemma of embodying absence. It's like he's saying, "I'm nothing and it's always like that, no matter where I go." We could even go as far as to say line 4, "[t]he case" works as both the situation our speaker finds himself in, but also like a "closed case" (think a closed briefcase, a safe, or a court case where judgment has been delivered). There's no escaping his absence; it's a done deal. And yet, he seems dissatisfied with the results and must carry on, forever caught between existing and not existing at the same time.

    and always
    the air moves in
    to fill the spaces
    where my body's been. (10-13)

    Our speaker is so full of absence, even the air chases him away. Or gets out of his way. Or refuses to mix with his kind of absence. Although he could just be reporting the facts of his predicament, he also sounds downright frustrated. Notice how he ends line 10 with "always" just like he ended line 4 with "always." It's a repetition of finality, as if there's no way out. No matter where he goes, even the air won't have anything to do with him. That could be frustrating. Imagine that no matter where you go, nobody acknowledges your presence. Could be fun sometimes, but after a while, if that always happened, you might begin to feel dissatisfied with your isolation from the world.

    Lines 12 and 13 make it sound like the speaker's presence is erased by air. Imagine a bad break up and then throwing away everything that reminds you of your ex. You might want anything and everything that reminds you of that person to disappear. Well, it's like the air broke up with the speaker, and the air doesn't want anything to do with him anymore. Even when he leaves, the air rushed in to wipe out "the spaces / where [his] body's been."

    I move
    To keep things whole. (16-17)

    Okay, our speaker doesn't come out and say, "I hate having to move all the time!" That would sound like dissatisfaction, and for a guy who's so plainspoken, you'd expect him to be more forthright about his emotions. But by the end of the poem, he's given us several images of how he doesn't exist in the world. His only solution, then, is to move. It's not as if he's headed somewhere to find the love of his life. He's trapped in a constant cycle of being somewhere and not being there, and his only reprieve from that prison of being absence is to keep moving. That could be a wee bit frustrating.

    Imagine you stop to take a break, catch a view of the sunset, say hello to a friend, and an overwhelming sense of isolation rises inside of you. Furthermore, the only way to stop that feeling of isolation is to keep moving along so you can escape that feeling…except that no matter where you go, that feeling will hunt you down. The speaker's subtle way of embodying emptiness and isolation is what makes this poem so haunting. Not only is his frustration captured with such simple language, but he ends the poem by saying that his own only refuge is to keep moving so that the world remains whole. It's almost like he feels like the world doesn't want him around, and yet his movement through the world is what "keep[s] things whole." Case closed.