In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
“Keeping Things Whole” by Mark Strand, which you can read in his acclaimed book Reasons for Moving: Poems.
Boys and girls, this is what wins you the Pulitzer Prize.
In one effortless stroke, Strand composes a fragile speck of observation and contradiction. At first read, the poem may seem tinged with humility, as Strand asserts his identity by way of absence, by what is missing. Yet he is also the force that fragments his world, and by consequence, he is what keeps the world — its fields, its forests — together. This paradoxical tension is what animates the echo of the poem.
From a technical perspective, Strand establishes the internal logic of what he’s trying to say and then describes things which follow logically yet are still freshly unpredictable. In this way, like many great works of poetry, “Keeping Things Whole” is a sort of mini-work of epistemic philosophy.
The work is also a great kerneled reflection on the philosophy of Solopsism. Ludwig Wittgenstein is the most notable twentieth century thinker who embraced this doctrine. In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein asserts, universalizing the first person, that the world and life are one and that I am the limits of my world.
To get the real thing, here’s what Wittgenstein said:
That the world is my world, shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world… ‘The language which I understand’ is the language which I have made mine through coming to know how it works, how it manages to represent the world, which is therefore also mine. I become all-embracing, all-possessing… ‘The world and life are one. I am my world.
I don’t claim to comprehend much of this. Like the butt of the old joke about String Theory (‘Anyone who says they understand String Theory… doesn’t understand String Theory’), the guy who tells you he understands the Tractatus is most likely not only a liar, but also an idiot. Bertrand Russell, who was partly responsible for bringing Wittgenstein to the attention of early twentieth century academia, and who himself had the young Austrian as a PhD student at Cambridge, read the Tractatus and was promptly sent a letter by his formidable protégé. This note informed him, simply, that even he, the great don of Oxbridge, would not truly understand the Tractatus. (See Wittgenstein’s famed metaphor of the ladder for more on this. Paraphrasing: “Anyone who discovers my philosophy and works to understand it may use it to climb to new heights, but must immediately kick away the ladder he used to get there.” If anyone can summarize this idea better, post a comment or message me in the sidebar.)
Back to “Keeping Things Whole”. Adam Duritz, frontman of The Counting Crows, wrote a lyric expressing the theme of the poem: “I am covered in skin/No one gets to come in”. And in Strand’s case, it’s reversed. I don’t get to go out.
My favorite works from Strand (in rough ranking):
From the Depths of the Mirror
Ever So Many Hundred Years Hence