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First, let us dispel the assumption that a poet’s sexual orientation is always and only the driving impetus in her work. Just because a few lines in the poem are gender-confusing (I am she: I am he.) doesn’t demand such an interpretation. The real heart of the poem is the experience of occupying an alien environment, here represented by the sea. Added to this alienation is the presence of a wreck, a sign of something destroyed and now still in the alien place, becoming at one with the once-alien sea environment. The narrator’s relation to the alien environment (a “body-armor of black rubber”, a knife, the “grave and awkward mask,” etc.) and her observations about breathing (“the clear atoms/of our human air”) are vital elements in the analogy she is drawing: “I have to learn alone/to turn my body without force/in the deep element.” The poem finds its power in its universal application to any experiences that require us to readjust our vision, breathing, judgment, etc. to new and completely alien environments, “a book of myths/ in which /our names do not appear.” It is entirely possible that Rich is drawing on her personal struggles with “coming out” or with adjusting to the alien (to her) world of heterosexuality, but the poem is not limited by that one interpretation.
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