Manipulating, limiting, and structuring language in everyday writing is in itself a difficult task, and somehow Adrienne Rich manages to coerce language so effortlessly in Diving into the Wreck, that I felt the responsibility to examine her work further. I first read this poem in my junior year of high school and enjoyed it then as much as I do now, but I realized, reading it again in the context of this course, that I had barred my self with unintentional ignorance regarding its depth. I have decided to frame my analysis by using both feminist and new historicist criticism, the former for obvious reasons, and the latter because I feel that queer history in the time period of the poem’s release provides an overwhelming amount of context and meaning to the sparse stanzas. Although every stanza in the poem contains fascinating prose, the last stanza really connected with me, and with the central paradox of queer history that we have noted upon as a class: How can one honor a painful past, while simultaneously push forward towards brighter horizons?
We find ourselves at the end of the poem looking upon the wreck, beautifully decrepit, our view being framed by the ambiguous identities of the diver and merfolk. Perhaps the key phrases in this stanza, in my opinion, is Rich’s use of the singular form of ‘one’ in line three, and ‘back’ in line four. The singular form of one grammatically contradicts the previous usage of ‘we’ in the first line, but I think that in ignoring this, it further bolsters the theme of collective identity of the wreck’s visitors that was previously established. There need not be any labels for those who make the dive to the wreck, nor are there stipulations to be followed for one to admire it. I connected this to the toxic tendency that exists in the queer community to marginalize its members unnecessarily for not expressing their gender/sexual identity in a way that is ‘gay enough’ or manifesting their gender expression in ways that aren’t definable or able to be organized. Additionally, this poem came out in 1972, an era in which governmental demonization of same-sex marriage, discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation, and the criminalization of ‘homosexual acts’ were coming under fire by LGBTQ activists in gay liberation of the early 70s. This erasure of stereotypes and rules for the queer community was unprecedented, and Rich deciding to manipulate individuality with use gender unspecific pronouns and juxtaposing ‘we’ and ‘one’ emulate the transitory nature of this period. Returning focus to the word ‘back’, this sparked equal interest for me because it insinuates that those mentioned in the poem have been to the wreck before. This being a return journey to the wreck, a symbol for the history of queer struggle, reinforces the difficulty of the imposed personal obligation queer people feel to acknowledge and overcome their own history. The dichotomy between ‘cowardice’ and ‘courage’ serve to illustrate societal feelings (feelings Rich herself has probably been forced to grapple with) about this paradox. One is only courageous if they survive descending the ladder, the ensuing perilous dive of self-discovery, and unblinkingly understands and honors the painfully contradictory nature of queer history; because it is not simply queer history in a broad sense, but their own history. This is the queer persons burden, according to Rich. An eternal, invisible struggle, emulated in the last lines of the poem-
“a book of myths
our names do not appear.”