Once in a while, you come across a piece of writing that deeply resonates with what lives inside you, in words you did not have yet. That happened to me, on a sleepless night. I fell in a YouTube rabbit hole and ended up at a recording of Adrienne Rich’ ‘Diving Into the Wreck’, a feminist poem from 1973.
It struck me that, forty-seven years later, Rich’ comparisons and images have lost nothing of their eloquence or relevance. This rich poem offers a variety of interpretations. I have found diving as a physical and literal experience is used in this marvelous poem as a metaphor to describe the transcending of human limitations. It redefines and blurs the parameters of what is considered to be ‘normal’ to become a symbolic encounter of misfitting within an alien environment, be it emotional, political, or even the transition between life and death, and possibly gender. You can find the poem here.
As could be expected from a peer of Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich’ poetry is quite confrontational, exploring themes such as the discrimination of women, racism, politics, women’s role in society and the Vietnam war. Her works literally break out of the conventional and traditional grid by being written in free verse. In line with Carla Kaplan, who explains how “feminist criticism has continued to build on [the] recuperative paradigm of recovering lost, silenced, misunderstood, or devalued women’s voices” (25), the poetry of Adrienne Rich can be seen a method for giving voice to the voiceless.
Rich’ talismanic poem ’Diving Into the Wreck’ was published in 1973, a few years after her marriage collapsed, leading her ex-husband to commit suicide. While evidently about the dynamic action of diving, the poem sketches the reflective thoughts of a scuba diver who is on her way to explore a sunken ship. In ten ‘versagraphs’ (stanzas of free verse), the I-person in the poem takes the reader on a rather spooky voyage under the sea. Through her narration, we encounter animals, treasure, corpses, and mysteries abound.
As Lacey Okonski (2015) explains, ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ can be read as an embodied allegory, a metaphor in which the target domain is not mentioned explicitly while the source domain draws upon embodied concepts. Okonski: “It also invites an allegorical interpretation in which the investigation of a wrecked ship symbolically represents one person’s look back at a past failed romantic relationship.” (2015: iv). However, as it was written in the 1970’s in the West, an atmosphere of intense political protest is embedded in the context. I therefore choose an interpretation of the poem as being about a private crisis in which the personal becomes political.
We live in a different era now and the question rises what the implications of a poem like this could be for our present society. I still agree with what Sondra Stein wrote back in 1978: “Adrienne Rich has supplied us with a wealth of metaphors and images that help to define and understand where we are now”. And with Emily Hancock, who describes the writings of Rich as a “touchstone text” that is “always ‘present’ with us, whatever the year and however much the political and/or personal landscapes may have changed” (Hancock, 2018).
The narrator – a stand-in for the poet herself – describes how she prepares herself for her journey, an Odyssey not upwards like Icarus or the men on the moon, but down – into the cold and the murkiness of the ocean’s water. With the opening line “First having read the book of myths”, the author places herself in a tradition of storytelling, which suggests the poem is a metaphor. But then she “loaded the camera”, an instrument that clinically records and overrides personal memories with facts, truth and proof. To study history for yourself and to distinguish his-stories from her-stories. The camera could as well be used to create a new layer of fiction by manipulating reality. She “checked the edge of the knife-blade”. With the knife, the author can dissect her findings, defend herself, and she can to cut herself of free the rubber suit and its restraints. In line with the idea of being below the ocean as a metaphor for death, she can also use the knife to end her life. The multitude of possibilities she gets with the knife makes this attribute quite empowering.
After having collected her attributes, the author “put on the body-armor of black rubber the absurd flippers the grave and awkward mask”. The use of armor is also empowering, made of the fetish material of black rubber. The items anticipate adventure and danger, and perhaps even sex. – Is the poet ready for a fight or dressing up for a kinky BDSM session? With her body-armor and her mask, her sex is not visible, so she is free to adopt whichever gender she prefers. The flippers – would a real diver not call them “fins”?- are absurd as they are out of place outside the water. Thus, the diver dresses up to find and conquer her place. Then there is the mask. It hides her face and hints at the reality many minorities struggle with, the idea that because of history (another ‘book of myths’) they have to dress up and arm themselves with attributes that do not fit in the context, to dive into the wreck of civilization. The diver has to investigate the true condition of the ship and what went wrong, as it has obviously sunken.
“I am having to do this” – a sentence that resounds the famous speech of Martin Luther, in which the following phrase was attributed to this seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation:“Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.” (“Here I stand, I can do no other”). These things must be done and the I-person has to do them. Then, Rich compares herself with another historical figure that is surrounded with myths: the legendary Captain Cousteau. But whereas Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) made his dives and his films with a whole team of people, the poet is here alone. Why is nobody helping her? For a long time ‘Le Commandant Cousteau’ was the most popular man in France (Le Journal du dimanche) so by contradicting herself with him, Rich might suggest that she feels that people do not care about her and the task she has to do. Moreover, in his films, Cousteau showed a very idealized way of diving, something people like to watch, whereas in this poem, Rich wanted express her unpopular opinion about the reality of the world, in which the ship of civilization has sunken by the burden of patriarchy: false ideas, prejudices and generalisations around women’s role in society.
“The ladder is always there hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner.”
The ladder symbolizes a major transition from our known and familiar world to the new and alien world. Starting at the conscious levels of the mind by collecting the real-life attributes, the diver now descend to the deeper subconscious. After her investigation of the wreck, she can share her experiences, thus resurfacing the silenced voices of women and other minorities. This wreck could have a multitude of explanations, the forgotten (works of) women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, immigrants, etc.This emphasizes her power, she is not a victim, she is a survivor of the wreck. The wreck stands for her past self or for her neglected inner life, the submarine world as a metaphor for the subconscious mind. Different minorities face vastly different forms of oppressions, but as misfits, “we” are all in the same boat, as Rich writes about a “we”, now, in contrast to the “I” that was “alone” just before. This implies that she found a tribe, a subgroup that has some common background and a shared interest. Moreover, the poet describes a “we” that knows. We have to know, otherwise, the ladder will just be meaningless decoration. It seems that there is something going on and she wants to form a group – a “we” – of like-minded people to address this. Therefore, the wreck could also symbolizes the forgotten works of women, that are unseen by a patriarchal society.
“Rung after rung”, climbing down the ladder takes so much time that seems as if for the diver, time goes slowly. In her essay “We all live in a yellow submarine” (2006), the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen uses the image of the water nymph to interpret the difference between linear time and inner time. In describing the small steps on the ladder step by step, it seems that Rich suggests something similar for her diver, whom I regard to as a cyborgian water nymph, to emphasize how the time you measure (Chronos’s time) can differ from the time as you perceive it or even do not notice it (Kairos’s time), which gives you a different experience of reality. Another way to change your perception of time can be by breathing. Rich writes how “the oxygen immerses” her – as a harbinger of what awaits her. The word “immerse” is usually used in the context of something liquid. The human air is something which is normal to us, so normal that we do not even notice that it is there. But the poet notices and knows that she has to go further and explore deeper. From my own experiences in scuba diving, I can tell that the different breathing (the “air” in the diving bottles is often another mixture, like EAN32, which has 32% oxygen) made me bouncy and fast-thinking, as if the world around me had slowed down.
On land, minorities are second-rated people. “My flippers cripple me” writes Rich, who herself has been tormented by rheumatoid arthritis. Often, people who have difficulties with walking, can move more freely when in the water. Related to this, the diver is now crippled. Her body is no longer equipped for life on land, just like Andersen’s Little Mermaid. And as she writes that she crawls like an insect, she is partly becoming animal. The awkwardness of the shift from being on land towards being in the sea is evident, which raises the question: where does she belong? Somewhere between longing and belonging the ladder can function as a symbol for the limbo, the transit, in a space that Homi Bhabha calls “Unhomeliness”. Nobody can tell her where the water begins, she experiences the demarcation lines as fluid as well. As a verb, to dive means to plunge headfirst into water. It suggest action and speed, whereas this poem describes carefulness and caution. For Adrienne Rich, this could mean the dive into a new life. Leaving the unhappiness of the housewife role far behind, but with the caution that comes with being a widow suddenly without her husband. This is of course not only exciting, but also scary – we do not know what happens with April Wheeler after the ending of Yates’ suburbian snapshot “Revolutionary Road” (1961), in which the price of ‘50’s conformity creeps up on you.
But “[t]he sea is another story, the sea is not a question of power”. In line with the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir, the poet notices that that there are no hierarchies in nature. When the diver gets under water, she leaves all societal oppressions behind. The sea is another world, and the diver is fully immersed in it, unlike the “nomadic sightseeing tourists”, who just experience “the brief visual sensations of places and landscapes” (Steenjacobsen 2001). The poet is fully aware of her surroundings, but like a migrant, she cannot fully blend in.
The actual change of worlds is a rush. The water is bluer than blue – that female element of life-giving primal waters, and the change of colours eases the reader into the dark, watery depths of the unconscious, where the poet blacks out. In reality, diving can be quite dangerous, for “[d]iving from jetties, peers and boats, or at the end of a run to the shoreline is the cause of several accidents every year.” (Botero et al 2017) So it is logical for the diver to feel panic. But her mask is her lifeline, with this “technè” she can now breath underwater. In society, people put on masks that match the different roles they (want to) play. The more one deviates from ‘the norm’, the more the masks differ from your own self.
We all create layers of personas to present ourselves to our different communities, but the diver will always be out of place, never settles, like the nomadic. As Rosi Braidotti (2006) explains (41), “[t]hrough the theory of nomadic becomings […], the subject is dissolved and re-grounded in an eco-philosophy of multiple belongings”.When you are a minority, specifically a migrant, you never stop being a nomad. You will never be able to settle wherever you arrive, neither come back to the place you come from, since it has changed from the minute you left. Just as the Little Mermaid, the diver is a misfit in both worlds: with the absurd flippers, the diver is crippled outside the water, but under the sea, she can only breath as long as her air bottle allows her. Without force she has to counter the stark separation between the two worlds, that was already implied in the poem’s title. Interesting here is the emphasis on the alone-being of the traveller. Apparently, she has not found any allies or companions, yet.
The first part of the poem focuses on the act of diving over the wreck, but now it shifts back attention towards a possible goal. The experience of human contact with nature becomes an exploration of the author with a historical artefact. As humankind probes nature outside itself, the author probes human history. The word ‘crenellated’ hints towards castles and war, a context of defense of the governing class. But in the water, you breathe differently – there is another atmosphere, another world with other rules. Dwelling in possibilities, the diver holds on to her words as purposes and maps, that provide her with meaning and direction. Perhaps that is why we travel in the first place, because no picture, story or movie could replace first-hand experience. The diver will now see for herself what has been lost and what still remained. She can choose which pictures to take of what has been left behind.
Finally, the diver arrives at the wreck. This man-made real thing that got here by disaster. When writing about “The thing I came for”, Rich might have winked to William Carlos Williams, who suggested that the aim was to write about “the thing itself.” The diver had read about this wreck, but now she has to face it – not the image or the story, but the reality. With her dive, the poet tries to get for herself, in order to claim her own experience. A new experience, from her perspective, without the ballast that first surrounded it. But what is the wreck when we disconnect it from the story of the wreck? For Okonski it was a failed love affair, so maybe it stands for marriage, or for sex, or for the idea the selfhood within each of these two concepts? It remains unclear whether the poet likes the skeleton of the boat, although she uses the word beauty for the faded glory of the artefact. And who are these “tentative haunters”? Just fishes or ghosts of the past, silent voices of people that drowned here? In these ambiguities that populate the ship, the poet allows for an abundance of interpretations, so that readers from vastly different backgrounds can concretize themselves, project their own idea about their own sunken ships onto this poem.
Everything changes when the narrator changes. The diver found her destination and can now start her personal exploration and investigation. By stating that she is both mermaid and merman and adding stereotypical representations of both (the long hair and the strong body), Rich blends the two traditionally opposing forces – man and woman – in the dichotomies that ‘Western’ society values. Underwater, all of the poet’s diving-clumsiness is gone as she metamorphosed into a new aquatic being, that is both male and female. A hint to bisexuality, or the thought that the masculine and the feminine are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely opposite.
The androgynous diver merges emotionally with the people on the ship that lost their lives. She can feel the pain in their chests, the human stories touch her, while noticing some treasure and some broken junk on the ship about which she couldn’t care less. All the useful items that were aboard are now broken. The sea has eaten them, as if the sea is now an animal as well. We saw what we had to see and the camera zooms out. And the poet’s voice is both singular and plural at once, which seems to suggest that she has found her belonging, her place in space. She arrived, through deep thinking and auto-affection (her self-love and self-care) by literally moving away from the other voices into the quiet underwater world, that allowed her to listen to what lives inside herself. She is not only a mermaid and a merman and the voice of the drowned, she is “we” now.
Book of Myths
The poem ends where it began, with the book of myths. We have to question this book of myths, everything that we have learned and transferred, does that really suit us? We need a skepticism of conventional wisdom to rethink “Why domestic, social, and cultural relations between the sexes so often get bogged down in misunderstandings and so often reach a dead end.” (Irigaray, 1993b, 176) Why don’t our names appear in the book of myths? Because it is not really about us, it was written by white, able-bodied, neurotypical cis men in a normative society. And with normative language, one could never truly describe the lived experiences of oppressed minorities, just like Rich describes in one of her other poems: “The Stranger“: “I am the living mind you fail to describe/In your dead language” (Gelpi, 1975: 52). As Rich states that the writers of myths could not contain her, she implies that it is time for a new writing, for a revision of the old history books. In Rich’ words, “The act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction is for women more than a chapter in cultural history. It is an act of survival” (Rich, 1972).
In ‘Diving into the Wreck’ the poet re-visioned herself to be reborn in ten versagraphs, in which every white line was a transition from location or perspective. “We that know” can all grab our gear and go down, to rewrite the book of myths. By this “writing back” to dominant discourses, we can go against assumptions, prejudices and preconceived notions. Just like Coetzee rewrote Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe to reflect the “canonical formulation of the colonial encounter” (Gardiner 1987:74). The call for this process has been heard for centuries. Take for example the women’s choir from Euripides’s Medea, which laments how “the muses of ancient singers” have told “the tale of my unfaithfulness” only from their perspective. Many contemporary feminists now challenge the pre-described identification in favour of a new intersectional focus on the differences between women. But that also raises the question already posed by Carla Kaplan in 1997: “What is the fate of feminist criticism’s traditional imperative to rescue women’s stories and make their voices heard?”. In my opinion, the writing of and on feminist poetry could play a major role in empowering different groups of misfits. Of course,everyone faces very different forms of oppression, but poetry like Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ allows for intersectional interpretations.
Just like water can be a mirror, Rich’s poem about the diver, who conducts research in water, can be a reflection of the broader social context in which the reader lives. Different layers of meaning can be revealed, depending on the position and context of the reader. In this way, the poem continues to be urgent and relevant in endless different ways. For literary scholar Jean Lee Cole, the wreck is materialized through the works of Onoto Watanna, to name just an example. When we read ‘Diving into the Wreck’ as a Hegelian immersion, the poem could also be read as a means to understand the Other. And in a Platonic worldview, the explorer is now whole, after a fusion of Self and Other. Maybe the wreck can be interpreted as the womb, for in utero, male and female are possible simultaneously. But as both figures have tails, they can anatomically not have the traditional human primary sexual organs. The mermaid cannot spread her legs, thus she can not have sex and she cannot give birth the human way. Their tails make the two figures partly non-human beings. Using disability theory, an interpretation could be that they are disabled in the human world since they do not have legs (or rather, they do not lack legs but they have tails which are seen as ‘abnormal’ in the human world). That would mean human society disables them rather than them being disabled human beings. Considering this, maybe for the poet the wreckage is the female body, her own body, the disabled body. All these different themes come together in this tale of diving.
For me, personally, ‘Diving into the Wreck’ is about issues surrounding misfitting and Otherness. It resonates with my own thinking about autism and my ideas of the Romantic mermaid as a symbol for misfitting. Just like the Little Mermaid, in a new world, Rich’ diver has become voiceless, thus unable to express her needs. But writing poetry can be a method for giving voice to the voiceless. It it still incomprehensible why Disney’s mermaid Ariel could write her name below the contract with the evil sea witch, while remaining “silent” in any way with her prince, Eric. Why did she not use her technè and write him a letter or a poem? Letters, poems and stories – including myths and fairy tales – are functional structures, constructed to legitimize certain cultural, historical and societal perspectives. Unfortunately, most stories up till now have constructed (produced, conserved and transmitted) the “mainstream” cis-male white able normative perspective. But fortunately, this is now decaying, just like a wreck in the water, in line with Rich’ dreams of a common language. By continuing our dives into the wreck, minorities of all sorts can re-write the stories in order to empower the misfits.
This article was originally written for feminist magazine Lover.