“Diving Into The Wreck,” a poem penned by Adrienne Rich, seems in my view to be grappling with the complexity of identity; and more specifically gender identity. It’s an exploration of self that culminates in the speaker’s discovery of a mermaid following a journey through the wreckage of a traumatized mind. While the truth of the speaker’s identity lies somewhere beneath this wreckage, but the speaker doesn’t even know where to start, or even what they are looking for until they find it.
Diving into the wreck, in this case, is really meant to mean that the speaker is diving through the wreckage of their own mind in order to look for self-actualization and validation. It is an entirely introspective journey, as evidenced by these lines from the third stanza, which say, “and there is no one/to tell me when the ocean/will begin” (Rich, lines 31-33). It’s a journey of self-exploration, with the vast ocean serving as the mind and the various wreckage serving as the trauma and self-doubt that stands in the way of self-discovery. The journey is made that much more significant by the fact that it is a journey only the speaker themselves can take.
Because the speaker’s assigned gender and general appearance are each left ambiguous, the reader has no idea how similar or different their inner persona (“the mermaid”) is from their outward persona (“the speaker”). However, because it is buried in this deep wreckage, it is clear that this mermaid was being hidden for a long time, as evidenced by the mermaid’s description as a worn-down figure, “whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes/whose breasts still bear the stress/whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies/obscurely inside barrels/half-wedged and left to rot” (Rich, lines 78-82). Because of the discrimination that transgender people face, and the lack of acceptance they often receive for their identities, it’s not a stretch to presume that perhaps the speaker, subjectively or perhaps even intentionally, buried the mermaid deep within the subconscious and away from the hurt and trauma that wounded them in an attempt to protect themselves, even though they knew it would make them unhappy. In that context it is easy to understand the lines, “I am she: I am he” (Rich, line 77) and “We are, I am, you are” (Rich, line 87) as ruminations on the speaker’s gender identity.
Furthermore, the final stanza of the poem can be understood as the speaker and the mermaid finally taking action to resolve the dissonance they feel despite being one and the same. When the speaker concludes the poem by saying “We are, I am, you are/by cowardice or courage/the one who find our way/back to this scene/carrying a knife, a camera/a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear.” (Rich, lines 87-94) it is clear that a change is imminent. To anyone familiar with the concept of dead names, the lines “a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear.” stands out in particular. For someone in the transgender community, a change in name to better suit their inner self is a way to cast aside the artificial identity they had constructed before and finally be themselves. As such, this line signifies that the speaker can ignore this “mermaid” no longer, and at long last they are finally going to become one, as they were always meant to be, and will face all the good and the bad that will come along with it in hopes of living as a more genuine self.