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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 414 words.)