Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” first published in 1973, creates a conceit of plunging into the ocean to ultimately write an ars poetica about reaching for the innermost feelings that are difficult to face, let alone write. Rich’s speaker does the slow work of preparation “not like Cousteau with his / assiduous team” but “here alone.” She mentally readies herself to sink down into the dark place of memory, unsure of when “the ocean / will begin.” As she enters the water, it darkens and breathing becomes difficult.
Jorie Graham’s “Deep Water Trawling,” published online at Folder Magazine and in her book Fast, chronicles similar work using a comparable set of imagery. We begin with images of fishing nets, “raking the bottom looking for nothing” and “probing down to [the speaker’s] greatest depths—2000 meters and more—despite complete darkness” surrounding her. She is “under strong pressure” but not alone; rather, “along with all [her] hundreds of species—detritus—in extreme conditions.”
Whereas Rich describes a SCUBA dive, Graham is showing us the invasive act of bottom trawling: the dragging of a net along the seafloor. Rich is economical with her words, sending stanza after stanza down the page in relatively short lines; Graham’s poem is claustrophobic, crowding many words across the entire page. Only two stanza breaks exist, and each of the three blocks of text takes its own form. Rather than giving us readers even a second to breath with a space between lines, the lines of the first stanza are separated with a dash, and the third, with an arrow (→). Only the middle stanza utilizes common punctuation and double spacing between lines, letting our lungs fill though only for a moment, as it’s lodged between Stanzas 1 and 2.
Our first stanza ends with: “mammals fish shellfish—we die of exhaustion or suffocation—the synthetic materials last forever” with no punctuation to signify the end of a sentence or clause. We meet our speaker, then pause. After the white space, we’re invited back in: “Ask us anything. How deep is the sea. You couldn’t go down / there. Pressure would crush you. Light disappears at 6000 feet.” Graham takes Rich’s ocean conceit deeper, moving outward toward ecopoetry (that of environmental concern). The significance moves beyond the experience of the speaker and reminds us that the dead zones in the ocean result from deep water trawling, pollution, and other human interference.
As readers, we are forced to contemplate: what have we done to the ocean? Each day, I read news of more destruction, from oil spills to whale carcasses found full of plastics. It’s helpless, hopeless. And yet we feel compelled to engage, to react, to make or do something. Perhaps poetry can be a step toward environmental preservation. Perhaps self-discovery can ultimately result in a wider positive change.
Like Rich’s poem, “Deep Water Trawling” features elements of ars poetica. Stanza 2 ends: “It turns out you are a first impression. Years go / by. Imagine that. And there is still a speaker. There will always be a speaker. In the” before launching into the third and final stanza. Here, we see the language of the poem: “speaker.” There will always be a speaker. Even in a poem without human presence, there must be a voice present; if someone (or something) is speaking, then it’s also implied that there is an audience or listener. If there is a listener, then a message can be relayed.
Although we readers get a chance to catch our breath in this stanza, it’s open-ended. Graham ends the final line with “In the”, enjambing this stanza with the next, which begins: “hypoxic zones is almost no more oxygen→then there is→no more→oxygen→for real→.” Form echoes content: there is no space for air between lines. Notice the echo of Rich, too, whose speaker (in full SCUBA gear) says instead: “the oxygen immerses me.”
As Rich enters her shipwreck, Graham enters the dead zone, in which “the deeper you go he says the→scarier it gets→because there’s→nothing there→there are no→fish→no organisms→alive→no→no life→.” These arrows force us to propel on, forward and down, and perhaps also reflect “[t]he blades like irises turning very fast to see you completely” of the opening line. If these arrows are like irises, then we’re given an (albeit small) image of beauty among the decay and destruction.
This stanza continues on, until, as if we’ve blacked out from lack of oxygen, another voice interrupts the poem. Rich’s speaker declares, “I am she: I am he” while Graham’s is an observer, listening as “he says→she says→who is speaking to me→.” Rich’s focus on discovering the self morphs into an action: once one becomes comfortable with even the most frightening parts of the self, then steps can be taken towards conversation and real action in a broken, dying world.
The final lines of the poem continue with this odd dialogue, ending not with closure but with an interruption: “hold on→just a minute please→hold on→there is a call for you.” This final line goes unpunctuated, and is perhaps meant as a reminder that the first transatlantic cable is laid across the ocean floor, further contributing to human impact on ocean life.
In either poem, have we swum anywhere at all? Perhaps there is something we can learn, as poets, from viewing these poems side by side. Keep in mind that scientists know less about the ocean than they do about outer space: it’s the great unknown. When writing, we can harness the imagery of deep sea to explore our psyche, our unconscious, our deep fears and hard memories. Maybe the way into the poem that frightens you the most is to put on a snorkel or cast in a line. Imagine yourself entering the dark waters: what does it feel like? What is there to discover?
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/