It takes some interpretation to piece together the elements of this poem but, that’s part of its appeal. It’s also part of the author’s intention. The confusion readers face when they start the poem is meant to mirror the speaker’s own confusion when trying to interpret the signs and symbols of earth. ‘The Unfinished’ evokes a feeling of being lost, confused, and out of place within a world that one should understand.
‘The Unfinished’ by Laurie Sheck is an intricate and meaningful poem about the nature of life on earth within contemporary society.
The speaker spends the lines of this piece describing how “unfinished” we seem in a confusing world. They use abstract images that are difficult to piece together while alluding to the possibility and complexity of free will. The poet uses hieroglyphs, in the form of frees, to spell out words that make sense together when one understands the nature of humanity, but for someone exploring them for the first time, they are entirely unrelated. These hieroglyphs represent attempts at meaning that fall flat. The poem concludes with a clear statement about being from and of the earth but not understanding it.
You can read the full poem here.
We were characters in a story
the writer couldn’t bring himself to finish.
So many disparate versions. The terror
risen into words, shrouded there, hanging, so cold.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by thrusting the reader right into the middle of an abstract narrative. This is a technique known as in media res, and it requires the reader to pick up clues in regard to the context and conflicts. The speaker describes being “characters in a story,” one that was left “unfinished” by the writer. It’s here that the title comes into play. It suggests that we, the speaker, and someone else (or perhaps a larger group) are without direction or some important characterization.
The “he” in these lines is the writer, someone who has control over the speaker. It was “late” when he left, and around them, a child was crying. On their fingers was smudged newsprint, suggesting that they are part of the story, part of the paper, and the words. This is emphasized through the description of “him” trying to “make of us a mechanism / by which the world would repeat itself.” The characters in this story embody the world more fully, the speaker says, or at least that’s what the writer was trying to attempt.
The following lines are even more abstract as they lay out what the writer wanted to include in the “story.” There are questions, various visions, terror, and heat and cold. There’s also, as the following lines, add “tenderness.”
And the tenderness — how the words barely touched it,
as if to speak it were a further hurt.
the configuration of the one for dagger
so close to the one that stands for shrub,
so hard to understand the difference;
The words “barely touched it,” the speaker says, evoking a feeling of a gentle presence, barely making itself known. It’s at this point that the poem transitions back to use the phrase “It was night when he left us.” Again, the “he” / writer is at the center of what’s happened to the speaker. He left, and the child woke, wondering where the “toys of the moon” are and if “we are the moon’s toys.” This suggests the complex nature of life, free will, and fate. What control, the speaker asks, do “we” really have over what happens? This is also included in the depiction of the writer creating “us” and then leaving.
When looking around the world, the speaker tries to make sense of what they’re seeing. The trees look like hieroglyphs as if they’re spelling out something. But one word is too close to the next, “dagger” is next to “shrub,” and it’s “hard to tell the difference.
or the one for fear that also could mean
reverence, the one for medicine so similar
of the radio tower, and the planes that passed above us
as we held to the earth and didn’t understand the earth.
The final lines emphasize the speaker’s lack of understanding and the broader confusion that the world holds. Fear and reverence are beside one another, and medicine is beside “entreaty” and “prayer.” These words relate to one another in the way that people understand creation and purpose.
The poem concludes with the speaker emphasizing how little there is to understand “earth.” We “held to the earth” as planes passed overhead but understood little of it. The hieroglyphics or the clues and allusions that we should be able to read are jumbled.
Structure and Form
‘The Unfinished’ by Laurie Sheck is a twenty-five-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without structure. For example, readers can find instances of half and full rhyme throughout this piece. They are sometimes easier to spot than others, but they do help create moments of musicality and unity. This is also seen through the use of literary devices such as those described below.
Throughout this piece, Laurie Sheck makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines thirteen and fourteen.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet makes use of especially vivid descriptions. For example, those that trigger the reader’s senses and make it easy and interesting to envision a scene. For example, “And the tenderness — how the words barely touched it, / as if to speak it were a further hurt” and “Outside, lines / of stiff trees stood like hieroglyphs.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “We were” in line one and “red” and “radio” in lines twenty-three and twenty-four.
The meaning is that despite living on and knowing the earth and contemporary society, there are so many unanswered questions about life. This is displayed through the hieroglyphics in the last part of the poem.
The mood is contemplative and solemn. Readers will likely find themselves confused and moved by what they’ve read. There is a great deal of meaning in the lines that requires digging to uncover.
The purpose is to question free will and the choices that we make every day on earth. The writer “left us,” and we are “unfinished.” There is little we can understand about the world we’ve been thrust into.
The speaker is an unknown man or woman, someone of the earth who does not understand the earth. Or, who understands how little is possible to understand. They speak for a group, likely meant to be all of humanity.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Unfinished’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘You Will Know When You Get There’ by Allen Curnow – speaks on the path of life through metaphors of the sun and sea.
- ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich – is a multilayered poem. The poet imbued it with many complex sexual and political innuendoes about power.
- ‘A Psalm of Life’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – a thoughtful poem about life’s struggles. The poet addresses the best way to confront these difficulties on an everyday basis.