Sunken Treasures much like Your Own

The opening stanza of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” starts with a list of preparations: a book of myths, a film camera, a knife, and a “body-armor of black rubber” (5) which makes them look “absurd” (6) and awkward (7). They then enunciate that their task is theirs and theirs alone, contrasting themself from Cousteau’s journeys into the ocean, “assiduous” (9) and well staffed with a team in comparison. The speaker is out of their depth (regardless of how well prepared they may be), and vulnerable. This vulnerability is exemplified in following stanzas, through simile: “I crawl like an insect” (30), and through imagery “black I am blacking out” (36). Throughout it all they also associate themself with the shipwreck itself: “We know what it is for, // we who have used it.” (17, 18), “We are, I am, you are”. The reality, the “thing itself” of the shipwreck erased and lost in the retold story of the shipwreck (“the myth”), contains “our name,” according to the speaker. The amount of danger and anticipation signalled in the desperation, helplessness, and vulnerability portrayed in their own preparation is for fear that they may end up like the shipwreck itself: “we are the half-destroyed instruments // that once held to a course // of the water-eaten log // the fouled compass.”

The story of shipwreck omits the reality of the things that were lost, among them the speaker’s—and their companions’—names, and in omitting the detail, or the details being lost and waterlogged, becomes mythologized: the poem speaks of historical erasure, and the (often intentional and malicious) loss of intimate, raw sentiment and reality in the transformation of lived experiences into history. In being erased from history, the speaker, and their associates, whether they be predecessors or contemporaries find their names and intimate, lived realities lost, damaged, waterlogged, with no story being left behind to preserve them, only a mythologized version of events which might not even acknowledge that they ever even existed.

Being Queer in the 21st century is to find the history of our predecessors and companions shrouded in mystery and haze, their lived realities lost to us and history books and biography books only sufficing to tell a myth based on the hint of a fact. We see ghosts of an implication: evidence to suggest this-or-that scientist or painter was gay, often conclusive, yet never scholarly integrated with the culturally significant mythologies we’ve created around them. The raw loss and devastation caused by the AIDS crisis, our names mythologized into obscurity in the version the general population continues to be taught, also. To be queer is to know that we are as vulnerable as the ships that have sunk before us, that our names and lived realities could one day be lost to time like our predecessors. To be queer is to “[load] the camera, and check the edge of the knife blade,” to “put on the body-armor of black rubber,” and diving into the wreck.

One thought on “Sunken Treasures much like Your Own”

  1. The way you took this search out of the poem, out of the self, and into the wider world is so revealing. Is there a difference between the ways we look for something inside ourselves and looking for reflections of self in speculation and Other? I don’t think so. In Diving into the Wreck, we accept that there is one character, the diver, until the merpeople are introduced and then we revise again when it is shown they are all pieces/versions/memories of the same person. It seems like we operate in the same way; we hold onto one truth until it is disproved, even if it is just a scrap or a rumor. Connecting mythology to queerness, like Autobiography of Red, connects queerness to a long admired religious, cultural, and scholarly tradition that offers security through the sheer amount of time that queerness has stood as truth in these stories.

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