Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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
- Check out those first eight words: "This is the place. And I am here" (71-2).
- This is a key idea in this section of the poem: it isn't just about describing a place or telling a story. The speaker wants us to feel what it's like to really be in a place, to see it with our own eyes. This poem addresses intense personal experience, as opposed to the canned, tired versions that might get passed down to us from our culture, from what Rich calls "the book of myths."
- So we know that being here is a big deal. But Rich won't let us get comfortable.
- Now we have to ask ourselves: who is here? That's about to get more complicated.
- It turns out our speaker has become a mermaid. And also a merman? Sort of confusing, huh?
- All of a sudden, the speaker transforms into a new creature, one that combines the world of the humans and the world of the ocean.
- But now she also combines the male and the female. It's almost as if our speaker were splitting in two.
- Sure enough, this creature starts calling itself "we," where it was only "I" before.
- Everything has changed. Our guide, the hero or heroine of our story, has changed.
- We don't even know if he or she (it?) is still fully human, and it won't fit into a gender category at all: "I am she: I am he" (77).
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
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
- When we read line 78, we get the other half of line 77. Read together, they say: "I am she: I am he/ whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes."
- Not only is the speaker androgynous (that means having the characteristics of a man and a woman), but she has become one with the dead men and women on the ship.
- It's a sad and horrifying scene
- The "drowned face" comes back, and we see and feel the weight of the ocean on the breasts of the dead.
- Even the objects in the ship are a sorry sight.
- There's some treasure, some silver and copper and vermeil (a kind of silver coated with gold). But this isn't the kind of treasure you get excited about. In fact, our speaker doesn't seem to care at all, and only notices that it has been "left to rot" (82).
- The other junk on the boat includes "half-destroyed instruments" (83), a "water-eaten log" (85), and a "fouled compass" (86).
- This is a scene of total disaster. All the useful things on the boat have been destroyed and scattered.