Maybe one reason I like Rich’s poem is because I have had no shortage of wreckage to explore in my life–dysfunctional family dynamics, loss, feelings of betrayal, abandonment, identity, self-doubt, sexuality. (Thank god for therapy. ) Although “Diving into the Wreck” takes up big questions of sexuality, gender, history, and myth, it has always felt very personal to me.
Like the diver in the poem, I often think of myself as the feminist explorer who is outside the “wreck” of culture only to discover time and time again that I am actually inside it. Try as I might to distance myself, I often feel as immersed in cultural myths about sexuality and gender as my students. And yet, the wound of being marginalized–of being a queer woman excluded from what Rich calls “the book of myths” –is enormously painful, and so even the “drowned faces” and ruined, “threadbare beauty” of the wreck can draw me in when I least expect it.
For me, diving into the wreck is a productive metaphor because it means exploring territory that is both new and old. It means valuing the multiplicity of gender like the androgynous diver; “I am she: I am he,” Rich’s mermaid-merman declares. It means finding ways to confront our myths and desires and fears in order to transform them.
PS I actually was lucky enough to have lunch with Rich when she came to my university for a reading, which was a thrill. This was just a few years after she refused the National Medal of Arts from the Clinton admininstration because, as she said, “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” Yes, she’s just that cool and brave and leftist and feminist!
You can read “Diving into the Wreck” here or, for a more multimedia experience of the poem, watch this video: