The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Donald Justice’s “The Missing Person” is a thirty-five-line free-verse poem composed of seventeen couplets followed by a final single line. The poem narrates the story of a man coming to the police station to report himself as a “missing person,” and through this initial paradox the poem examines questions about identity and the relation of individual identity to society.

The poem begins with a person, named only as “He,” arriving to report himself as a “missing person.” Although the poem does not specifically say where the speaker has arrived, one imagines it to be a police station or other public building where such reporting would be appropriate. In the second stanza the authorities hand him some forms to fill out. The description of the authorities is extended in stanzas 3 and 4, where they are pictured as having “the learned patience of barbers,” waiting idly for customers, “Stropping their razors.”

Faced with the blank spaces of the forms, the man “does not know how to begin.” He does not seem to know who he is, or perhaps who he is will not fit into the spaces that are provided for declaring one’s identity. Trying another method to get a fix on his own identity, in stanza 8 he “asks for a mirror.” The authorities assure him that he can be nowhere but where he is, “Which, for the moment, is here,” as if mere presence were an adequate substitute for identity. The man would like to believe the...

(The entire section is 432 words.)