Study Guide

One of the Lives Identity

By M.S. Merwin


Who am I? How did I come to be? These are the two super-big questions that seem to preoccupy the speaker throughout "One of the Lives," although he never asks them directly. As he delves back into his personal history and beyond, you see him begin a quest for answers. It's almost as if he feels a need to include all the details, important or not, to piece together the puzzle of his identity. (Hint: start with the edge pieces.) Nearly all of the people mentioned (no matter how insignificant they seem) have a part in shaping our speaker's identity. It's pretty weird to think his father's driving instructor had anything to do with forming the speaker's identity, but she did her small part, just like the red-haired boy did his. It's a small world after all. (Thanks, Disney!)

Questions About Identity

  1. Based on the information in the poem, what kind of person do you think the speaker is? 
  2. Why do you think the speaker chooses to reflect on his identity at this moment? 
  3. Of the things mentioned, which do you feel were most important in shaping our speaker's identity? Why?

Chew on This

The speaker feels lost at this point of his life, like he doesn't know who he is (or else somebody's swiped his GPS). He reflects on all this history in order to get a sense of his present identity.

The kind of reflection that the speaker is doing means that he can never have a purely original identity. He will always owe who he is to the lives and events that have gone before him.

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