Themes and Meanings

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The central paradox of “The Missing Person”—one can only report others, not one’s own self, as missing—highlights Justice’s inquiry into the nature of identity, of one’s own ability to know oneself. The difficulty of this undertaking is illustrated through the subject’s inability to fill in the blanks in the forms he is given, his request to look in a mirror, and the final image of himself as in a dark house, years away from trusting himself to be out in the light of day.

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To a lesser extent, the poem deals with the relationship of the individual and his or her identity to the “authorities.” In the second stanza the authorities hand the “missing person” the forms, and in the third and fourth stanzas the authorities are pictured, waiting for him to fill out the forms. They wait “With the learned patience of barbers,” idle except for when they are “Stropping their razors.” There is nothing especially frightening about their patience until one sees them stropping their razors, and then one need only imagine a little background music from an Alfred Hitchcock film for the image to appear very sinister indeed.

Many of Justice’s poems in Night Light, the book in which “The Missing Person” first appeared, deal with loners, with isolation. From the boy who imagines a romance with a dressmaker’s dummy (“Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy”) to the aging magician, alone on his island (“The Last Days of Prospero”), the book is replete with characters in isolation. Nevertheless, two poems from that collection give an idea as to how Justice finds meaning and connection from within the isolated context. In “To the Unknown Lady Who Wrote the Letters Found in the Hatbox,” the speaker addresses a woman who wrote letters of sadness, decline, and implied isolation, which were found in a hatbox after her death. That Justice wrote this “reply poem” suggests that the woman’s sufferings and loneliness did have meaning in that they were communicated to a sympathetic listener—Justice—who has taken the time to write a reply.

In “Poem to Be Read at 3 a.m.,” the speaker writes while passing in a train a town with a single night light on. The speaker says the poem is addressed “for whoever/ Had the light on.” That person can obviously be the original person in Ladora, the town in question, but it is also the reader, whoever is sympathetically reading the poem. In the case of “The Missing Person,” even as the subject in that poem searches for his identity and despairs of finding it, he creates a bond with the reader, who has also faced doubts about identity.

Poets are generally excellent at studying subjectivity and identity, and they display their findings in their poems. By giving artistic form to studies of diverse characters, and by examinations of their own musings, poets help readers to better understand the complexity of identity. From that perspective, while the “missing person” may be unsuccessful in discovering his identity, he helps readers to discover their own.

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