29 Mar Diving Deeper by Corey Martin
In “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich and “Pearl Diver” by Mitski, the speaker narrates a deep-sea dive during which the diver undergoes a shift in identity as a result of a quest. The speaker in each text describes the dive, drawing lines of division between the surface and the sea. The speaker’s imagery reinforces this division, thus rendering diving a symbolic act which initiates and continues this separation. The division then allows for a separation to occur between the diver and who they were on the surface, stripping them of their former identity. Finally, each text uses imagery and powerful language to contribute to the atmosphere and discord within the text. Ultimately, both pieces use symbolism through the act of diving to create division within the text to examine instability and loss of identity.
Both texts use the act of deep-sea diving to establish a barrier between the surface world and the ocean, creating a clear separation between before and after the dive. In Rich’s poem, the speaker says, “the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I have to learn alone” (Rich lines 39-41). The use of the word “another” – as well as the implication that the surface, unlike the sea, is a question of power – establishes a division between the surface and the dive. The speaker establishes this distinction to overlap with a departure not only from the surface but also from others, as the diver must “learn alone” how to navigate in this new environment. Additionally, the speaker creates a sense of unease by leaving the audience with an unanswered question: if the sea is not a question of power, what is it a question of? In “Pearl Diver,” the speaker opens by addressing the diver directly, saying, “treasure hunter, you are dead” (Mitski 0:30-0:32). Similar to the solitude referenced in Rich’s poem, death isolates the diver in “Pearl Diver”. In Rich’s poem, the dive separates the speaker from other people; in Mitski’s song, the diver is separated from life itself. The sense of unease created in Rich’s poem is created in “Pearl Diver” as well. Though the speaker declares the addressee to be dead, they also encourage the diver to continue their quest, accompanied by “creatures of your woken mind” (0:42-0:44). The diver’s “woken mind” contrasts with the aforementioned death of the diver, creating tension in the song. The ominous “creatures” add to this tension, as they are neither explained nor addressed again in the song. Thus, the distinction created between the surface and the ocean and the unease created through ambiguity create discomfort and a sense of division in both texts.
In each text, imagery reinforces the division between the surface and the ocean, which further develops diving as a symbolic act that initiates this division. In “Diving into the Wreck,” the speaker describes in detail each part of the dive: “I go down. / Rung after rung” (Rich 22-23). The speaker uses realistic and straightforward descriptions throughout the poem to allow the audience to clearly visualize each part of the dive, venturing further from the surface and deeper into the ocean. In “Pearl Diver,” the image of the descent is instead created musically. In the chorus, as the speaker repeats, “pearl diver, dive, dive, deeper / pearl diver, dive, dive, down” (Mitski 0:54-0:59), the melody falls in pitch in quick runs. While there are higher notes, they are repeatedly followed by a series of rapid drops in pitch. In this song, Mitski uses word-painting, a technique used in composition wherein musical gestures reflect the meaning of the text that accompanies them to express an important image within a text (Carter para. 1). The use of word-painting in the chorus of “Pearl Diver” creates kinetic imagery and a sense of falling, travelling deeper into the sea with the diver. Furthermore, the repetition of these lines in the chorus cements this feeling of continuous and constant descent. “Diving into the Wreck” also uses repetition to reinforce the image and depth of the dive. The line “Rung after rung” places stress on both instances of the word “rung,” using rhythm along with the repetition of the word to create a sense of continuous motion, implying that the movement down the ladder extends beyond the one line. These vivid images of descent use diving as a mechanism to facilitate the process of separating the diver from the surface.
As a result of the separation between the surface world and the ocean, each texts’ divers’ identities disassociated the identity they held on the surface. Both texts concern a quest in search of something under the sea, and, as the quest continues, the identity of each diver becomes inextricable from the subject of their quest. In “Pearl Diver,” the speaker says, “hunter, you were human” (Mitski 1:30-1:33). The use of past tense implies that the hunter is no longer human, and the use of alliteration draws focus to the words “hunter” and “human.” Additionally, in the song, the piano chords slow during the verses, sounding only on certain words. In this line, “hunter” and “human” are individually underscored by these chords, further emphasizing them. By bringing these words to the forefront with the use of alliteration and instrumentation, “hunter” and “human” are juxtaposed, creating an antithesis between the words. In taking on the identity of a hunter, the pearl diver loses their humanity. Furthermore, in the verses of “Pearl Diver,” the subject of the poem is addressed not as a pearl diver but instead initially as “treasure hunter” (0:30) and later only as “hunter” (1:18). Though the title of the song is “Pearl Diver,” in the verses, which carry the narrative of the song, the speaker reduces the pearl diver solely to their quest for treasure. By switching from “diver” to “hunter,” a word that has a much more active and aggressive connotation, the speaker creates a sense of intensity to the goal of the pearl diver. In another shift of identity, the speaker in Rich’s poem takes on the identity of the wreck: “I am she: I am he whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes” (Rich 77-78). Rather than a loss of identity, the speaker of this poem undergoes a blending of identity with the wreck. By using both the pronouns “he” and “she,” the speaker demonstrates to the audience the changing and dynamic nature of the identity they take on. In referring to themself as the one “whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes,” the speaker takes on the identity of the sunken ship, using the same phrase previously used to describe the wreck. In addition, contradiction is created through the act of sleeping “with open eyes,” adding to the tension of the piece. Each text creates dissonance and disconnection through the dive and through the search as the subject’s identity blends with their goal. By crossing the boundaries of strict and certain identity, both “Diving into the Wreck” and “Pearl Diver” effectively create additional instability.
“Diving into the Wreck” and “Pearl Diver” also employ imagery to create a dissonant and unsettling atmosphere to contribute a overall sense of discord in the text. In “Diving into the Wreck,” the speaker likens the descent to losing consciousness: “First the air is blue and then / it is bluer and then green and then / black I am blacking out” (34-36). Using visual imagery, the speaker allows the reader to imagine the experience of a deep-sea dive. The use of polysyndeton – intentional repetition of conjunctions – to link together the series of colours increases the pace of these lines, implying a sense of panic. Similarly, in “Pearl Diver,” the speaker tells the diver that “the light of the world is fading” (Mitski 0:32-0:34). The speaker in “Pearl Diver,” too, creates a visual image of losing consciousness as the visible light from the surface fades. By referring to the light coming from the surface as “the light of the world,” the speaker separates the dive not only from the surface but also from the world as a whole. This separation leaves the reader and the song’s addressee to wonder what awaits the pearl diver once the light has faded. In the song, this image of fading light is accompanied by the music itself fading suddenly after gradually building up, using word-painting once again to develop imagery and create a foreboding tone through the sudden moment of quiet (2:35-2:39). In both texts, the descent is framed not as inviting but instead as dangerous and frightening. The imagery and syntax of each of these lines contribute an ominous tone that facilitates the apprehension of the divers in the audience as well. This apprehension and discomfort create a sense of instability that mirrors the instability of identity within the texts.
Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and Mitski’s “Pearl Diver” both use a symbolic image of diving to create unease and portray shifting and unstable identity. Deep-sea diving is used to create a barrier between above and below the surface, a barrier that is further emphasized through imagery as diving is rendered a symbolic act. In both texts, this separation results in a fracturing of identity, underlined by a dissonant and foreboding atmosphere. Despite taking on different mediums, points of view, and styles, these two texts effectively use symbolism and tone to examine identity and change through the lens of an undersea dive.
Carter, Tim. “Word-painting (Ger. Wortmalerei)”. Grove Music Online, 2001,
Mitski. “Pearl Diver.” Lush. Mitski, 2012. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/1AawyOAUCnID3AiuXsL5oB?
Rich, Adrienne. “Diving into the Wreck.” The Broadview Introduction to Literature: Concise Edition. 2nd ed., edited by Lisa
Chalykoff, Neta Gordon, and Paul Lumsden, Broadview Press, 2019, pp. 645-648.