The Missing Person

by Donald Justice

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

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 authorities’ easy answer, but he knows there is more to the story.

The image he sees “emerging// Slowly” from the mirror, in stanzas 13 and 14, is intriguing. He finally sees himself, albeit darkly, as an external image. This leads to images of how others see him. He is one who comes out “Only by dark,” one who “receives no mail,” one whom the landlady knows only for “keeping himself to himself.” This trio of visions of himself as others see him, however, hardly adds to the self-knowledge the man desires. Rather, it emphasizes his obscurity and his lack of relations with others, his disconnectedness.

The poem ends with the reflection that it will be years before he can trust to show himself in the light, and even if he does, what he shows will be a disguise, “This last disguise,” for who he really is. This ending seems to affirm that the self is essentially unknowable, both to the self and to others. On the other hand, it may be poetry that most closely reveals the self, even as it grapples with the self’s disguises.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

“The Missing Person” looks very simple in its construction, absent of rhyme and meter, with no attempt, indeed, to make the lines come out evenly. The words and punctuation could almost be prose. Justice presents the poem in brief couplets, with anywhere from one to eight words per line, but mostly three-to six-word lines. Laying the poem out this way, with much white space, encourages the reader to take it slowly, meditatively—an appropriate approach for the difficult problem of identity. It is quite interesting and effective that the poem is written in couplets all the way through except for the last line. The poem is about the relationship between a person and his identity, as if the identity could somehow be separated from him, put into words on a form, reflected in a mirror, made into an exterior object such that he could examine and understand himself. The couplets seem to imply a feeling of companionship—each line goes with another—but this only makes the final single line, and solipsism of the “missing person,” more poignant.

There are several other images that highlight the possibility of companionship, only to frustrate it. As the man stares at the spaces in the form, into which he will write his identity, the spaces “Stare up at him blankly.” There is an implied communion between the man and the spaces as they stare at each other, but nothing comes of it as there is no self in the spaces; they merely stare “blankly.” The authorities speak to him, and “he might like to believe them,” but he cannot. He is on a mail route, with all the potential for connection with correspondents that that brings, but he “receives no mail.” He has a landlady, who could perhaps be a friend, but she only knows him as one who keeps “himself to himself.”

In addition, the missing person is nameless; there is no personal handle for others to address him individually. He cannot know himself, and others cannot know him. These are not disconnected phenomena. Part of the reason he cannot know himself is because no one else knows him, and thus he can receive feedback from no one. Just as the mirror reflects a visual image of people, the social network reflects and creates part of people’s identity, but for the missing person, the mirror and the social network reflect very little. Although the poem seems simple in style, it grapples effectively with difficult ideas.

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