(Poetry for Students)

Community vs. Solitude
In “The Missing,” the speaker assumes a terrible responsibility as a voice forced to speak not only for itself but the countless others whom death has silenced. It is the way the speaker solves this dilemma of representation that makes the poem a unique achievement. In speaking of the self, the sudden unexpected condition of loss and loneliness in which the speaker is suddenly entrenched, he is able to address the grave plague that has threatened any sense of community. Thus, a vibrant and living link is established between the living and the dead that otherwise would be impossible.

The arc of the poem moves from solitude to a vital sense of community, and then back to the sole voice devoid of these social connections. In the first stanza, the speaker’s friends have begun to “fall sick, grow thin, / And drop away.” He finds himself confronting his own body, and thus his own mortality in light of this development. In the second through fourth stanzas, this self-consciousness is temporarily postponed by the “involved increasing family” that had once assembled around him. But this comfort was fleeting. The community assumes an ironic, if not paradoxical, presence in the poem. It was this very assembling of a group of friends and lovers that has allowed the disease to spread. By the fifth stanza, the poem begins its retrograde, its backward, movement. The speaker remains, “[balancing] unsupported here.” Without the love and support of his friends, the speaker feels he is something less, “a shape of a shape,” that can resort only to the slim comfort of memories. At its end, the poem does not offer any solutions, any realizations this pain has offered the speaker. In losing others, the speaker, “trapped in unwholeness,” has ultimately lost part of himself as well.

Exposure vs. Self-Protection
The poem takes as its subject the spread of the deadly AIDS virus, a modern plague that has claimed millions of people worldwide. In lieu of a cure for the disease “Which for all I knew might have no end,” the speaker presents the solidarity of those whose lives have been touched by the epidemic. Their unity is the one source of comfort and strength staving off the inevitable fate of...

(The entire section is 928 words.)