“Keeping Things Whole”

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case. (5)
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always (10)
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving. (15)
I move
to keep things whole.

In “Keeping Things Whole,” Mark Strand uses the imagery of the speaker’s environment to convey the speaker's lack of identity. The first image he uses is a field. The speaker, instead of focusing on his own presence in the field, uses the field to characterize himself. By drawing the attention away from the speaker, Strand reveals how insignificant the speaker feels; he lacks identity and lets himself be defined by the “absence of field” (2-3). Strand then broadens this image by stating that this absence is “always the case” (5). This line expresses the ongoing struggle of the speaker to create meaning in his life. The speaker has failed in asserting himself; he has gone through life defined by his surroundings. The tone Strand creates with the use of words such as “absence” and “always” is dark, and it sets the cynical mood for the rest of the poem.

The last two lines of the first stanza (copied below) have a unique structure in that somewhat mirror each other. “Wherever I am I am what is missing” (6-7). By writing the lines this way, Strand seems to be trying to negate the presence of the speaker. At first, the speaker is present--conveyed through the words “Wherever I am” (6). However, Strand erases this presence by re-writing the words--except this time stating “I am what is missing” (7). Through this mirroring, Strand expresses the way in which the speaker sinks into the background, dominated by his environment.

The next image Strand uses is the movement of air. As the speaker walks, the air erases any indication of his actions. This image of the air filling the spaces the speaker has been reveals that the speakers actions are pointless. They are simply covered or filled up by the air as if they did not even occur. In this second stanza, Strand also uses repetition. He repeats the word “always” to assert the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation (10). No matter what he does, his life amounts to nothing more than the movement of air--an occurrence that has no effect.

The last stanza broadens the poem to apply to all human beings. The speaker makes the general statement “We all have reasons for moving” followed by his specific reason for moving: “to keep things whole” (14-17). Through this structure, the speaker is able to emphasize that his life has come to a pointless movement amidst the steadfast, meaningful world around him.

This poem focuses on the seemingly meaningless life of the speaker: the emptiness of his actions and the negation of his very existence. These aspects all fall under the doctrine of Existential Nihilism, which is the theory that life has no meaning or value. An existential nihilist would see himself, his actions, and his very existence as pointless and insignificant. The speaker in “Keeping Things Whole” seems to follow this way of thinking through his observance that his actions are meaningless.

Although I personally do not believe in the ideas of Nihilism, I find it fascinating to think about a world in which nothing matters. No matter what we do, we are just moving air, which is bound to fill the spaces we have been. If I were to define myself as the absence of my surroundings, I would feel belittled enough to truly feel invisible. This way of thinking opposes how I see life. I do not see our actions as insignificant, and I think my contrast in ideas is the reason why I find Nihilism so fascinating.

Below is a link to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy where you can read more about Nihilism.


“The End”

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.

When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat, (5)
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he’ll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight, (10)
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.

In this poem, Mark Strand expresses the unknowns of the end of the world. The opening line uses a song as a metaphor for one’s reactions. The unknown song one sings at the end conveys one’s final convictions of life--his feelings and beliefs. Strand also uses imagery in this first stanza--that of a ship sailing off from a pier. This ship acts as a metaphor as well; it represents one’s life, which is coming to an end as the ship leaves the pier. Through this image, the reader is able to experience the feeling Strand is trying to create: one of departure without hopes of return. He uses the word “never” to convey the finality of this departure (4). The purpose of this first stanza is to provoke thought in the reader as to what kind of man he will be when the end comes.

In the next stanza Strand uses more imagery to contrast the every day goings-on of our days to the ending of these daily occurrences. These are images of the natural world: a rose, a cat, the sunset, and the moon. After listing these familiar aspects of our world, Strand probes the reader’s curiosity by stating that one does not know what he might “discover instead” of these things (7). The juxtaposition of the customary with the unknown evokes a sense of fear that human beings often feel when considering uncontrollable, unfamiliar events. Whether Strand’s purpose is to scare the reader or simply stimulate interest and questioning is not clear.

Strand then shifts focus from these tangible aspects to the intangible “weight of the past” (8). He creates another image--one of the past leaning “against nothing,” which I conceive as a way to convey the complete loss of control and order, which will come with the end of the world (8).

The poem continues with Strand’s imagery of nature. However, each image produced is one of the world stopped in its natural order of things. By reducing the sky to nothing more than “remembered light” and conveying the end to the movement of clouds and flight of birds, Strand emphasizes how powerless we are to the eventual end of the world (9). He ends the poem with a dark, ominous assertion, which follows the dark tone of his poem, of how we will respond to the unknown--what we “shall sing” when faced with the “darkness” of “the end” (11-12). This final sentence is extremely grim, and I believe Strand is trying to instill the fear of the unknown into the reader.

Like "Keeping Things Whole," this poem is depressing in my opinion. However, it has truth. There is so much that we do not know--who will we be when the world ends? How will we react? What will happen to us? All we know is that life as we know it will change. This uncertainty scares me. Strand creates the image of a dark end, but even this is uncertain. The end of the world could, in fact, be full of light--a beginning instead of an end. Again, I believe my contrasting optimistic views are the reason why I find Strand's poetry so intriguing. He provides an incredibly contrasting view of life which causes me to think and question my own ideas.

This image is what I pictured when reading Strand’s comparison of the end of the world as a ship leaving a pier.

If you want to listen to the poem being read, you can go to

"The Room"

It is an old story, the way it happens
sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
The listener falls to sleep,
the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open

and into his room the misfortunes come -- (5)
death by daybreak, death by nightfall,
their wooden wings bruising the air,
their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over.

There is a need for surprise endings;
the green field where cows burn like newsprint, (10)
where the farmer sits and stares,
where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.

In his poem, "The Room," Mark Strand discusses the "misfortunes" of the world (5). In line, one, he uses ambiguity--not stating what exactly happens--in order to capture the attention of the reader. He also states that whatever happens is "an old story," which conveys a feeling of exasperation and lack of surprise (1). In the next line, Strand discusses when "it" happens (1). By using repetition in this line with the word "sometimes," he further develops this sense of boredom; the speaker of the poem seems to have a nonchalant attitude towards whatever is happening (2). This boredom is emphasized in the next line as well with the image of a listener falling asleep. However, after painting this non exciting image, Strand's next line delivers a twist in mood, a development of action; the opening of the closet door. This line also carries a somber tone because this closet holds not clothes but unhappiness. Strand creates this abstract image to express that this unhappiness is something that has been kept out of plain sight--stored away in a closet like an insignificant piece of clothing. Strand uses this sudden change in mood and tone to draw the reader's attention to the following line.
The next line is the focal point of the poem because it finally relieves the anticipation built by the ambiguity in the first stanza and states exactly what happens. This line is a periodic sentence; Strand does not state the verb "come" until the very end of the line (5). This serves to mimic the way one hides his unhappiness; it is kept locked away inside of us until the point where it all comes rushing out. In line 6, Strand lists some of the misfortunes that come out of this closet into the room. By repeating "death" in the same stylistic manner he repeated "sometimes," Strand illustrates the commonness of death. He juxtaposes "death by daybreak" to "death by nightfall" to express to the reader that death occurs in all situations. Next, Strand uses anthropomorphism, comparing the misfortunes to birds with "wooden wings" (7). Usually, when dealing with flight, the feeling of freedom and lightness is conveyed. However, the image of wooden wings reveals the exact opposite; these misfortunes weigh one down, making flight difficult. The last line in the second stanza creates a complicated comparison. Strand compares the shadows of the birds to "spilled milk" (8). Here, the poem becomes more complex because Strand creates even more distance between his immediate subject (misfortunes of the world) and what he is conveying to the reader (the shadows of birds being spilled milk.) However, the complexity does not end with this double comparison. Through this comparison, Strand also incorporates the common saying "Don't cry over spilled milk" into this line, which conveys that these shadows (the misfortunes of life) are unchangeable. He is stating that it is pointless to allow yourself to be depressed by these misfortunes because they are part of life.
The first line of the last stanza addresses the blasé attitude of the speaker in the first stanza. The occurrence of misfortune, according to line 1, is an "old story." Strand wants a "surprise ending." This statement exposes Strand's desire for something more to life than the ever-present death and unhappiness of the world. He supports this assertion with an example in the next two lines, painting the image of burning cows and a disbelieving farmer who remains unmoving. This situation would, in Strand's mind, be a "surprise ending" because of the farmer's reaction. Unlike the world who cries over the spilled milk of misfortune, the farmer reveals no emotion; he "sits and stares" (11). The last line of the poem encompasses Strand's existentialist, almost Nihilist view of life. The line asserts that the events that "happen" are "nothing," and because they lack meaning, they can never be as bad as we think.
This picture of an empty room accompanies Mark Strand's view of life as meaningless. Although misfortunes come out of the closet into this room, he ultimately asserts that they have no meaning.

"Coming to This"

We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.

And now we are here. (5)
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.

Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away. (10)
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain.

The first line of "Coming to This" is a selfish statement. Strand also uses past tense to convey that the selfish action is done, and the rest of the poem stems from this past event. The diction in the second and third lines--"discarded dreams"--creates a sad, regretful tone, and it seems as if Strand is reprimanding the "we" he references for choosing the "heavy industry" over the pursuit of dreams (2-3). The last line of the stanza conveys the ever-present tragedy that plagues us in life by describing it as an "impossible habit" (4). This first stanza is a statement of a list of actions that "we" have done in the past (1). Strand uses this listing of past actions to build up for the confrontation of the present that occurs in the following stanza.
Line five is concise and direct, drawing the reader's attention to the present. The listing of past actions is done, and Strand makes it clear that the meaning of the poem is about to be revealed. The next lines explain where "here" is (5). Apparently, "here" is at a dinner table. However, Strand states that "we cannot eat," creating a feeling of frustration in the reader (6). The first stanza built the anticipation for the present, and now the actions of the present are being hindered. Strand personifies the dinner, describing how the meat "sits" and the wine "waits" (7-8). This personification gives importance to the dinner; the meat and wine are more than just food and drink. They have a great significance, yet we are not able to eat them. This first and second stanza together serve to build up anticipation and then keep the reader from discovering what the present moment holds. Strand paints the picture of a dinner just sitting there, ready to be eaten, and yet does not allow the act of partaking in the meal.
Line six is the title of the poem, which, in itself, gives it significance. However, the statement "coming to this" serves to create a focal point of the poem. At this line, the reader realizes he is about to discover the point of the poem. However, after reading line 10, I was disappointed with what I found. Again, Strand uses this idea of nothingness--the empty, meaningless life. He again states that this idea of nothingness is actually beneficial because we can never lose if nothing can be "taken away" (10). Line 11 completely refutes the idea of religion. Strand opposes the idea that humans have a heart (referring to our soul or the emotional heart). He also combats the idea of heaven or the existence of a savior. The last line of this poem emphasizes this assertion of nothingness; it describes an utter lack of action. Not only are we unable to move, but we have "no reason" to stay (11). Strand comes full circle from his first stanza--a statement of previous actions--to his last stanza: the complete lack of action and lack of being.
This poem makes me think of an elaborate meal layer out on a dinner table, yet no one is there eating. It is the total rejection of life and what is has to offer.2057655937_0360ff2618_z.jpg