Sunday Poetry: Keeping Things Whole, by Mark Strand

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

– by Mark Strand


This poem is short, but it is a considerable speck of writing. Short poems are often the sneakiest – allowing you to think you “get it” upon the first reading, but then if you read it again as a victory lap to confirm your mastery, you start to see that there’s more there than you thought. This fragile, tiny poem contains a frustrating mountain of thought.

The first stanza opens with a brilliant statement of alienation. When I first read this poem in college, it summed up a feeling of not-belonging and fear of being a disruption to my corner of the world. So much fear and unworthiness seems to run through that stanza that it stuck in my mind for 30 years, and drew me back to it this morning. The fact that we displace the world simply by being disturbed me and rang with truth.

It still rings true, of course, but I see more now. The second stanza seems a bit of a repeat of the first, but it introduces movement. His disruptive influence is like writing on water – as he moves on, the void he creates is filled with the air he parted. He has moved from alienation to insignificance.

The third stanza, though, rings false to me. It’s a gigantic statement of god-like ego. HE is responsible for keeping things whole. HE, having explained his sense of alienation and claimed his insignificance, now claims to be acting on some self-imposed mission to keep the world whole.

Papa was a rolling stone, indeed. As a college student, I saw the allure of life as a picaresque adventure of movement, mixed with a stoic indifference to consequence. This poem was written in 1964 – I can’t help but wonder how often it showed up on the nightstands of pregnant women waking up suddenly alone. “Sorry, babe, I got to keep moving” is a convenient escape route for any man whose passage through the world necessarily causes more disruption than air can repair.

3 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: Keeping Things Whole, by Mark Strand”

  1. Pamela Green says:

    i read with interest your opinion. Which in itself is a void. The poem will always stand. Your opinion will not. For me, the first stanza does not evoke alienation or fear at all. It brought a smile to my face. He does not consider HIMSELF missing. it is the void he is creating in the field that is missing. Until he moves. For if we don’t move, we are either going back in remembrance or regret, or moving forward with a faith that we are MOVING and progressing. This is human nature. There is nothing egotistical in the last stanza. I believe he keeps things whole for himself BY moving. How do you keep things WHOLE without digging your own HOLE?? : )

  2. Pamela Green says:

    Then it bears repeating. As your comment is repetitive for the fact that people keep reading it over and THAT’S a void!

  3. gonemild says:

    Interesting points! A lot of people really like this poem, and that says something in its favor.

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