Not Looking for a Shipwreck and Romeo and Juliet

I don’t like the idea of coming out, it just isn’t for me, personally. So, once I realized I am queer, and that narrowing down to a more precise label felt tedious, I simply shrugged my shoulders and continued on. Looking back, I wish that I could say thank you to my younger self for many things, but mostly for that fearless moment of self-acceptance. Since that moment there has been doubt and fear and tears and courage and laughter. But there was a period of time where none of that existed. I just swam along, loving the heat of the sun and the feel of the water sliding around me—the bubble that I lived in, which kept me close to the surface. Now that this is past, I find myself pulled back to this time, and to Diving into the Wreck. If I could show this poem—and my interpretation of the slow, exploratory dive that allows the diver to swim down and face them self, a mirror at the bottom of the ocean—to my younger self, I think she would say, “Well, I haven’t read the book of myths, I’m not really interested in photography right now, and I’m not sure what I would ever do with a knife, much less diving equipment. I’m not prepared, I won’t be going deeper any time soon, and that is fine.”

The thing is, I was already swimming. I was already in the water, I had no boat to decide to climb off of, so I didn’t really notice when I started to drift down. The moment I started to slide was, and it’s almost too cliché, a two week long in-class reading of Romeo and Juliet. I was Juliet and another girl was Romeo and it was beyond embarrassing for reasons I did not understand at the time. I knew that I was queer and yet I did not apply that knowledge to my actual life. Romeo invited Juliet to the opening night of the play she was in, but Juliet was too nervous to go. I certainly wasn’t looking for the wreck, for the unseen truths it would offer me, and therefore I only found the myth. The myth that absolutely nothing had to change about my life because I recognized my queerness. As wonderful this recognition was it was not the same as coming to terms with it, with the freedom of change. This myth was so captivating, but I had swum deep enough to understand that it was only one layer, a color gradient in the water.

Through personal and academic study and lived experience I’ve spiraled deeper and deeper, but I wonder if discovering the wreck is something that I will knowingly do. I definitely need to live a lot more before I even consider thinking that I am approaching it. Maybe, like my understanding of the importance of this memory which only came to me now that it is in the past, I will one day remember that I came looking for the wreck only to discover I’m already looking back at it.

Turn Around!

The recent movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire helpfully offers a self analysis through the characters’ reading of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The movie follows the brief romance between a noble lady, Héloïse, and the female painter, Marianne, who paints her wedding portrait but also shares her love of literature and music. In the myth, Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice even though she is dead. Hades allows this, on the condition that they walk straight out without him turning around once to look at Eurydice. Of course, Orpheus looks back just as the couple reached the exit. Héloïse says Orpheus chooses the memory of his wife, while Marianne suggests that Eurydice says, “look back”. This myth perfectly embodies the second qualifier of queer time presented by Halberstam and the implications of it in the movie A Portrait of a Lady on Fire echo the ending of the novel Written on the Body in really intense ways. 

Halberstam states that “queer uses of time and space develop… in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identifications” (1). In both the novel and the movie it makes more sense to think about the characters’ relationships based on the second qualifier since they both return to normative chronology in the end. (That is not to say there is no opposition to be found in these works, I’ll just be lightly jumping over it.) The narrator leaves Louise with her husband and Marianne leaves Héloïse to prepare for her wedding. However, the leaving isn’t the same. Halberstam explores the idea of a “constantly diminishing future” and the pressure and urgency this creates, which “expands the potential of the moment” (2). In Written on the Body, the narrator leaves Louise because of a fear of the diminishing life she has, and, therefore, they have, in the hope that leaving gives Louise longevity in her husband’s care (104-105). In A Portrait of a Lady on Fire both Marianne and Héloïse knew that their relationship would end and they would return to their respective normalities. But they lived together, for a moment, within their expanding potential even with the temporal boundary of Héloïse’s wedding day. 

Both stories present a queer reality that is ultimately overtaken by normative chronology. Moreover, this return is a choice made by the characters themselves. Orpheus lived for a moment in a queer reality, that he asked Hades for, where he could bring his wife back to life. Either he chose the memory of her and looked, or Eurydice chose the memory of him and told him to turn around. In both scenarios, Orpheus lives with the beautiful memories he has of his wife and the memories are given new life by the possibility of her continuing to live. When Marianne leaves, Héloïse calls out to her, “turn around!”. She doesn’t ask her to stay. Héloïse chooses to call out, but Marianne chooses to look. They both choose the memory of existence outside of the normative reality they now reside in. The narrator of Written on the Body leaves Louise so that she might live longer. They wrote a goodbye letter and were promised updates on Louise (141). They chose the memory without giving Louise a say. They turned around, but Louise never asked them to. Without both parties choosing the memory there is no closure to their pocket of queer time. Héloïse, Marianne, and the narrator keep beautiful memories, but Louise is just simply left. Because the narrator did not include Louise, they cannot rely on her promise to write, only Elgin’s. This leaves the narrator wondering and worrying rather than sure in Louise’s promise. This anxiety is what drives them to be discontented with the memory of Louise and struggle to find her. In comparison, Marianne and Héloïse never see each other again and are happy to revel in their memories.

Spirling into the self

“This is the place. 

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair

streams black, the merman in his armored body.

We circle silently

about the wreck

we dive into the hold.

I am she: I am he”

Diving into the Wreck (68-74)

Some formal elements of Diving into the Wreck add to the imagery of a diver circling downwards in the ocean, such as line breaks that cut sentences apart creating visually longer stanzas. The idea of diving deeper and looking into the self in a more detailed manner is also supported by drawing out a simple description with the addition of very similar objects and details as in lines 83-86: “we are the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course / the water-eaten log / the fouled compass”. This description could have ended at line 84, but continues to spiral into the description of the instruments by introducing them. Rich does this on a larger scale in stanza 8.

This stanza adds new information, like the presence of the merpeople and the act of diving into the hold of the wrecked ship. However, it also repeats motions, feelings, and the reassertion of purpose stated earlier in the poem. Stanza 4 describes what the diver encounters upon moving deeper into the ocean, presenting a color gradient that is new to them and mentally and physically taxing. In stanza 8 this is mirrored in the encounter with the merpeople. Instead of color gradients, this time the diver sees the merpeople which represent different gradients of the diver’s self. Stanza 4 continues with the diver’s statement that they “have to learn alone / to turn [their] body without force / in the deep element” (41-43). This connects to line 71 where the motion is repeated in the silent, slow circle around the wreck. Back in stanza 5 it is shown that at this point the diver has lost track of the purpose of the dive, which is then reaffirmed in stanzas 6 and 7. This translates well into the imagery of stanza 8 because the silent circle performed at depth by fantastical entities and an absurdly outfitted diver come across as slow and steady, with time for distracted thought and interest in the other creatures, due to the rhythm of the short lines of the poem that slowly march downwards. Finally, in accordance with the statement that the diver came for the wreck itself (58) the diver and both their other selves “dive into the hold” (73), breaking away from the distraction of restating the purpose and circling and moving back into description and understanding with the affirming statement of “I am she: I am he” (74). The longer, more detailed description of the dive in stanzas 1-7 paired with the shorter, more general experience of it shown in stanza 8 allows the diver to shift through many details at the micro and macro level, while also compounding the feeling that the poem spirals continuously in on itself just as an exploration of self does. 

Library Access

One passage that stood out to me was on page 96, just before the break. This passage reveals a lot more about the speaker’s overall perception about what their relationships mean to them and the value they give them than it seems to on the surface. “They’ve taken my ticket away,” they tell Louise (96), talking about their ability to use the British Library which is important to their work as a translator. Not just their work, their “livelihood” (95). On the surface this passage and the scene leading up to it shows their humiliating removal from the library, which they take almost emotionlessly, and the subsequent feeling of that emotion when they are with Louise. However, their time within the library really had nothing to do with their work, it was simply a space for them to occupy while they were “sick to the gut with fear” waiting for Louise to decide the fate of their relationship (91) and reliving a moment when someone they loved left them (93-94). The layering of these events and memories ties the loss of the library pass to, not just their current predicament with Louise, but all the times they lost access to a central person in their life. Even though they haven’t lost Louise yet this period of waiting and the expectation that she will leave allows them to feel it prematurely. Upon being reunited with Louise, neither of them speak about their future. Instead the narrator bursts into tears, finally releasing all of the emotion from the past two days. This takes on even more meaning because it is the only time the narrator has been able to mourn the loss of their love with that person, though they do not end up being separated at this time. The idea that the ticket is not just for “work”, like a single part of their life, but for their “livelihood” translates to their relationships taking precedence in their life rather than being just one peice of their understanding of themself. Along with that, the fact that they view their relationships as a ticketed event, something they must have access to or else be left outside in the cold, further clarifies their intense attachment style. However, because this comes from the narrator’s own mouth, rather than just showing the reader events (like their stalker tendencies, for example), this passage also makes it clear that the narrator is aware of their attachment style and perspective on their relationships, yet chooses to engage in them anyway.