Study Guide

Keeping Things Whole Themes

By Mark Strand

  • Isolation

    It's not every day that you come across someone who thinks he's the embodiment of absence. But it isn't that unusual to hear people talk about feeling isolated. In the age of social media and handheld computers, our attention spans are less than long, and we travel around in little digital bubbles. The speaker of "Keeping Things Whole" isn't walking around with an iPad in his hand, but he does feel isolated from his environment, which is everything he is not.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. What imagery does the speaker use to create a sense of isolation from the natural world? 
    2. Although the speaker never says he is lonely, how does he create a sense of loneliness and detachment from both himself and his environment? 
    3. How do the line breaks in this poem contribute to the speaker's feelings of being "absent"? In other words, how does the poem's form mimic the content?

    Chew on This

    The whole reason the speaker moves to keep things whole is because he feels like he isn't a part of anything. He's not part of the whole, so he has to keep moving to get out of its way.

    This speaker's isolation is self-made. If he could just stand still for a moment, he'd find he's actually a part of his environment, and not breaking it up.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Or is it Man Missing in the Natural World? In the case of "Keeping Things Whole," we're not dealing with a man who returns to nature to get balance, who's battling forces of nature, or who's trying to live a more organic lifestyle by shopping at the farmer's market. Our speaker's relationship with the natural world is totally and completely and absolutely non-existent. Well, sort of. He's there but he's not there and if he doesn't keep moving, he'll vanish completely. What's natural about that?

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How does the form of the poem create tension between the speaker and place? Check out those line breaks for ideas. 
    2. What is the relationship between the speaker's absence and his desire to "keep things whole?
    3. How does the speaker use images from nature to express his relationship to the natural world? What effect does this have on our understanding of the poem's overall meaning?

    Chew on This

    If nature were a classroom, the speaker would be getting detention everyday for not showing up to class even though he was there all along, which leaves him with a sense of fragmentation and isolation.

    Most people believe we're naturally linked to the natural world, but for the speaker in this poem, his link to nature is through never being a part of the world and his only cure for that is to never stand still. Ugh. We're tired just thinking about it.

  • Identity

    The funny thing about the speaker of "Keeping Things Whole" is that he clearly states who he is, but it's always defined by what he's not. Although we don't get a ton of details about this guys, we get a clear, frightening portrayal of how he feels about existing in the world. His isolation from the world creates a sense of being two things at once: absent and present. He seems trapped in this cycle, and although we never get his identity in the sense of his physical appearance, the speaker uses some pretty tricky poetry moves to create a sense of his presence, er, absence, well, both, his non-place in the world, and that goes deeper than any profile picture on Facebook ever could.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does this poem use line breaks to create a sense of fragmentation and isolation in the speaker? How is the form of the poem reinforcing the speaker's feelings about existing in the world? 
    2. Although the speaker repeats, "I am" several times, he's really telling us what he is "not." In what ways is negation an element of the speaker's identity? 
    3. What imagery does the speaker use to express his identity as someone who can't be a part of the world? What effect does using such minimal language (small words, simple diction) have on our understanding of the speaker's identity?

    Chew on This

    Remember that frightening detail from movies about how vampires don't have reflections? Well, enter our speaker, and although he isn't sucking blood or growing fangs, his identity is totally defined by not being there. Spooky, no?

    Please welcome on my right, I mean my left, wait, I can't find him, the speaker of this poem whose identity is non-existent because he only defines himself by what he is not, rather than what he is.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Ever known that person who can't sit still, seems detached from the present moment, and won't just chill out and relax? Someone who complains all the time? You could say a person like that is dissatisfied. And you could also be describing the speaker of "Keeping Things Whole." He's dissatisfied, but in a different sense—he doesn't have a feeling of emptiness, he is the emptiness, and his eerie descriptions of how that manifests in the world creates a feeling of dissatisfaction with himself and his existence, which keeps him moving throughout the whole poem.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How does the title of the poem and its appearance in the last line of the poem create a sense of dissatisfaction in the speaker with his presence in the world? 
    2. In what ways is "moving" both a solution and problem for the speaker's dissatisfaction with existing in the world?
    3. How does the speaker's insistence that he's the absence create the sensation that the speaker is unable to define who he is in the world? In other words, how does the speaker's definition of himself act as dissatisfaction with "being" who he is?

    Chew on This

    Imagine trying to fill a bowl full of holes with water and you'll get an idea of how unsatisfied the speaker feels about existing in the world.

    The Rolling Stones had it right when they played "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and for the speaker, it seems that he's motivated to move through the world by a feeling of never being able to get a sense of who he really is. That's what he wants, and he's never gonna get it.