Saturday, October 16, 2004

New: "Keeping Things Whole"

I came across this poem the other day and I love it. It's from _Modern American Poetry_, ed. by Joseph Coulson, Peter Temes, and Jim Baldwin, 2002 edition, p. 376. It's Mark Strand's "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.

Having spent as yet little time with this poem, I am first struck by the palpable sense of space; the perception of boundaries between the speaker's self and the environment. The speaker is what everything else is not. The poem strikes me as quite poignant in that the speaker is "what is missing," and yet seems forever alienated, at least spacially, by what surrounds him/her. The speaker "keep[s] things whole," but not by adding to or blending in with what surrounds him/her. Perhaps if the speaker stops moving, and does not allow the air to "fill in the spaces" behind him, that place of non-air becomes some kind of blot, or taint, or at least a disruption of the wholeness and balance in the world. This seems a lot of responsibility for one person to carry.

The ineveitable question that comes to mind at the end is "Why do I keep moving?" I'm going to sit with this a while.

9 comments:

cj white said...

I am intrigued by the authors definition of self in terms of his surroundings. It is more than just that he is a man that is separate from the field, he *is* the absence of field. Standing in a forest, he can no longer be defined by the field, but is now the absence of forest.

I can't help but notice the missing particle "the". There is a subtle difference between /I am the absence of field/ and /I am the absence of the field/. As if the universal qualities of all fields are more important than the uniqueness of this particular field. Or perhaps, in the moment of being in a field, there is nothing else, just field and not field. I like this thought, the present here-and-now quality of it. Focus on what is around you and not what came before, or after, or if it better or worse than other fields. It is just field.

louise said...

I love Mark Strand, he was one of my earliest influences. I don't think I could write an intelligent essay on why though-- good luck with that!

sigmund fraud said...

I'm trying to remember in which anthology I'd come across this poem. I can't at the moment. Anyway, I had understood this poem as if the author had an intense feeling of emptiness, of nonexistance or not doing the things he'd like to do/or not being the person he wants to be.

"Wherever I am
I am what is missing."

This is the clue, the feeling of vagueness, unsureness so succintly put across.

As for his reason of moving

"...to keep things whole" , I felt was his way of being reassured that empty though he may be, he still does exist.

It's nice to come across old poems that one likes. Its like meeting some old friends.

Amy said...

Hi, Sigmund, thanks for your great comment.

I love this poem. I can write or talk about it for hours. I believe the narrator is expressing an inability to define him/herself without an environment to provide the "other," the contrast. Therefore, without the "field" or other surroundings, he/she does not exist. That's where I think your impression of emptiness comes from. And, if one always views the world in terms of self/other, one will always feel alienated.

Kandro said...

This poem is particularly relevant to Mahayana Buddhist thought as applied to the "emptiness" of things and "causal dependency". See text: Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nat Hahn and the sutra chapter where Buddha explains emptiness as fullness - and the appearance and condition of all things as the composite of elements.

I read this poem when I was 11 for the first time. I memorized it then - captured by it - for a reason I didnt understand. Discovered the teaching of 'emptiness' more than a decade later and now I value the insite of this poem more than ever.

Kandro said...

This poem is particularly relevant to Mahayana Buddhist thought as applied to the "emptiness" of things and "causal dependency". See text: Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nat Hahn and the sutra chapter where Buddha explains emptiness as fullness - and the appearance and condition of all things as the composite of elements.

I read this poem for the first time when I was 11 years old. I memorized it then - captured by it - for a reason I didnt understand. Discovered the teaching of 'emptiness' more than a decade later and now I recognize the value of this poem in a way that illuminates that initial attraction.

Amy said...

Thank you, Kandro, for your comment. It's wonderful the way this poem has travelled with you--first as a child, who learned it for the sheer joy of it, then as an adult who has more awareness of its meaning. I wonder what this poem will mean to you in another ten years?

ahmad said...

When I first read the poem, almost negative things keep on entering my mind but when I read it again and again, I come to realize that those negativity cause something positive, in the sense that "WHOLENESS" is being created...

Actually, we have not discuss this poem yet in our lit class but I am really excited to share my views and perceptions about the poem...

Sometimes I also feel that somehow I am just nonsense in this world... When I considered myself in a solitary confinement, I always try to recall all the things that I did, that in many ways had affected this solitude I am experiencing...

On the other side, I realized that even though I consider myself as "nonsense", "useless", "irrelevant", "mistake", etc., there are still marks left on the people I've been with... In connection to that, though I consider myself someone that "disappear", I believe that there is something or someone in this world that may remember me... I mean... It is not possible to be "untouched"...

Going back to my realization about this poem, I believe that Strand was able to express his own feeling of "existence" and how it can affect someone else existence...

Amy said...

Ahmad,

I also feel very affected by this poem, and I understand what you mean by thinking at first that there is someting negative being stated. At least in the West, we feel that ideas of emptiness are inherently negative, i.e.emptiness=non-existence. I think the speaker here makes it clear that emptiness has form, even if that form is defined by the boundaries of environment. Definitions of self and boundaries are purposefully left ambiguous, and, as you say, it is difficult to separate people/objects/events from each other. It is all interwoven.