Finding the Hole in the Wreck: Shamanic practice in the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton.
by Camelia Elias
July 10, 2013
In this paper I draw a concrete line from shamanism to confessional poetry. I’m interested in looking at how the cathartic function of confessional writing is even stronger when passed through the traditional shamanic hole that leads to experiencing the underworld of the unconscious. I want to argue that both Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton manipulate with visualization techniques in their symbolic imagery in order to create an atmosphere that is akin to a shamanic journey. The poetic examples that I want to discuss demonstrate how the “language of the suicides” (Sexton) and “the thing itself” (Rich) are not only a means of ‘getting there’ but also a divinatory medium for getting insight and gaining wisdom on how to overcome the inconvenience of having been born as a woman or at all. Furthermore, I argue that in an animistic worldview, all psychology of transformation is poetic.
Finding the Hole in the Wreck:
Shamanic practice in the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton.
Shamanic practice is a magical practice. A shamanic journey can be induced by the sounds of the drum, with the one undergoing the journey landing some place in the unconscious. Or rather perhaps in some layer of the subconscious, as the shamanic practitioner often remains with one foot in the world of logos. What makes a shamanic journey extraordinary is the other foot, as it were. The foot that treads an unknown terrain in a mythical world. ‘But how do I know I’m there,’ students of shamanism often ask, and the answer to this is: ‘through your senses.’ Shamans of the world will tell everyone that if you can see what appears, smell what you see, hear what speaks to you, taste what is given you, and feel what flies with you, then you’re there (Harner, 1990).
In more standard academic contexts than the woo-woo world of going to the underworld to speak with the dead, what we are dealing with here is called ‘indirect suggestion.’ One of my favorite practitioners of alternative forms of psychotherapy is the famed psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Milton Erikson, who has argued that through, what he calls, “ambiguous function assignment,” a client can be made to find a magical solution to his or her irrational problem (Lankton, 1985: 69). Or indeed, one could argue that what people sometimes need is in fact a cure for their rationality rather than their irrationality.
Assigning an ambiguous function to a specific task that clients had to perform for Erikson, such as carrying a hammer around for a week, or finding a tree in the park to commune with it for an hour every day for a week, can be considered a call for participation in a world that is not of this world (69-71). For once, one would have to suspend one’s disbelief, and forget all together about asking what the point is to going and talking to a tree. Secondly, not only would one have to forget that speaking with trees in plain public view potentially could send one to the loony bin, but rather, one would also have to invent an idiom, or a tree language, in order to ensure that communication with the tree is successful. For we can, indeed, talk about a success rate, if we are to believe psychotherapists such as Erikson, who reported extensively on what his clients got out of it. A lot.
Erikson’s idea was that engaging a subject in such protocols of doing apparently ‘irrelevant’ work has the function of activating what is within reach in each individual, namely the finding of a concrete answer to a distressing problem. Although such treatments are not for everyone, the magical aspect of the task does seem to influence a person’s state of mind, and above all place the person in a state of awareness of what just happened. Often the answer to what happened in Erikson’s sessions was not the realization that, ‘oh my god, my therapist is good,’ but rather that, ‘I’m good.’ There is thus a sense of poetic justice in the realization that a ‘mysterious task’ contributes to heightening a curiosity about a world that is otherwise buried in anxiety, norms and tedious routines. What we can appreciate in Erikson’s work is his banking on a client’s willingness to ‘help’ his or her therapist to follow – yet at the therapist’s indirect suggestion – where one is trying to get. Erikson thus works with every individual’s capacity for expectancy, surprise, and discovery. In other words, play.
The advantage, or perhaps we could even say triumph, of doing magical work over rational work is that magical work fixes in a snap what Wittgenstein called an insurmountable difficulty whenever we must account for the limits of our world. “The difficulty,” said Wittgenstein, “is to realize the groundlessness of our believing” (Wittgenstein, 1975: 24e).
Now, those accustomed to seeing the world around us in animistic terms, will recognize that what Erikson does, with his ‘ambiguous function assignment’ is no different than sending people on a vision quest, a shamanic journey, or to sit on the hedge when the full moon is beaming. What is interesting about such activities is the ensuing storytelling. People who have talked to trees, acted as psychopomps, or flew with dragons, all have a story to tell, and this story is often a story of the poetic transformation of the mind, a confessional that is more magical than real, and precisely therefore also more useful.
In this paper I will now draw a more concrete line from shamanism to confessional poetry. I’m interested in looking at how the cathartic function of confessional writing is even stronger when passed through the traditional shamanic hole that leads to experiencing the underworld of the unconscious. I want to argue that both Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton manipulate with visualization techniques in their symbolic imagery in order to create an atmosphere that is akin to a shamanic journey. The poetic examples that I want to discuss demonstrate how the “language of the suicides” (Sexton) and “the thing itself” (Rich) are not only a means of ‘getting there’ but also a divinatory medium for getting insight and gaining wisdom on how to overcome the inconvenience of having been born as a woman or at all. Furthermore, I argue that in an animistic worldview, all psychology of transformation is poetic.
The reason why I’m interested in drawing such a line is because I see how particularly confessional poetry shares the same kind of directness of experience that we find in shamanism. In other words, if the aim in shamanism is to establish direct contact with whatever populates the unconscious, confessional poetry has also gotten rid of the types of questions that revolve around methodic approaches to writing. For instance, if more traditional poets are always interested in asking the question: ‘how do I say this?’, the confessionalists plunge right into it and say it. If the creative writer asks, ‘what kind of an effect can I anticipate with this writing?’, the confessionalists provoke an effect that one can see unfolding immediately. Confessional poetry is thus engaged in ways of participating in the magical world that it creates, rather than just talk about it, or even pose metaphysical questions about the conditions of this world’s existence. There is no second-guessing here, but rather first-hand experience. There is no promise, but deliverance.
If we look at Adrienne Rich’s famous poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” we can quickly agree with the host of writers and scholars who see this poem as being about the personal transformation of a housewife, a woman’s journey into a man’s world, or a woman’s struggle to end the battle of the sexes (Templeton, 1994). Erica Jong captures most vibrantly some of these ideas in her words from Ms. (1973):
In "Diving into the Wreck," the title poem, it is the androgyne who dives into the wreck to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail […] This stranger-poet-survivor carries "a book of myths" in which her/his "names do not appear." These are the old myths of patriarchy, the myths that split male and female irreconcilably into two warring factions, the myths that perpetuate the battle between the sexes. Implicit in Rich's image of the androgyne is the idea that we must write new myths, create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm but heal it. Rich's visionary androgyne reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that the great artist must be mentally bisexual. But Rich takes this idea even further: it is not only the artist who must make the emphatic leap beyond gender, but any of us who would try to save the world from destruction (Jong, 1973: 33).
But let us read the whole poem, and see to what extent we can enlarge the body of criticism that focuses on women as explorers, creative daughters of the moon and water, and advance the idea that what we are dealing with here is more than a process of learning through decoding symbolic correspondences. What we are presented with here is a process of the transmission of knowledge that one already has, or acquires while in a specific state of mind.
Diving into the Wreck
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
abroad the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it's a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or week
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
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
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
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
What is it that makes this poem powerful? I’d have to stick here to the idea that what is most obvious is also that which is most impenetrable, and yet conclude that, at least as far as I’m concerned, the most powerful idea in this poem is ‘the thing itself’. ‘Not the idea of the thing,’ as Rich plainly states herself, while flinging the secret to good poetry right under our noses, but ‘the thing itself.’ I’d argue here that if we all go and ask, ‘well, what the heck is that, the thing itself’, then that’s because we are culturally preconditioned to recognizing a symbolic pattern that makes sense. If we want to be even more adventurous, we’d ask, ‘is the woman the thing itself?’ and then keep silent, suggesting thereby that silence is the thing itself. But woman had a history of silence, so why would we want to do that, probe into ‘woman’ as a category or essence? We’d have to reckon with where men would fit into the ‘the thing itself’ and that endeavor may easily end up as a walk into the woods with someone who doesn’t know the woods. If we want to be less symbolic and less cultural, we may bring in the alchemists. There’s evidence in Rich’s text that what she is talking about is the transmutation of the soul, with her mentioning of what is akin to almost all the 7 stages needed for such a process. The nigredo stage, the blackness of decomposition is in fact central to the poem, with the actual diving into the wreck as a necessary condition for emerging on the other side with the ability to see things. The knife in the hand can now be put to other uses than chopping veggies in the kitchen.
The elements in the poem that can be recognized as shamanic are the ritual of conjuration, “having read the book of myths, and loaded the camera, and checked the edge of the knife-blade,” embodiment, “I put on the body-armor of black rubber the absurd flippers the grave and awkward mask,” the journey, “there is a ladder… I go down rung after rung,” and finding spirit, “the thing itself and not the myth.” In traditional core shamanism there is a saying that’s meant to distinguish between shaman and healer, sorcerer and witch: “no spirits, no shaman.” This means that in order for someone to be considered a shaman the requirement is that person must demonstrate in one way or another an ability to collaborate with the spirit world. And what is the spirit world? Some would identify that with the creative genius, higher self, or a web of interconnectedness in which we all play a part, simultaneously as ourselves and also as others. In this spirit world defined as a web of connections I can be Jung writing a treatise on alchemy. I can be Adrienne Rich going to the underworld to meet a power totem. Or I can be myself allowing myself to say to you all: ‘my voice goes with you.’ “The words are purposes. The words are maps,” says Rich, embodying for us the essence of indirect suggestion.’ “I came to see the damage that was done,” she says, but by the time we get to the actual reading this line, we’re already there, wherever there is and where the act of fixing the damage takes place. The investigation of the wreck becomes part of a healing process, the process that redeems what Rich identifies as “the treasures that prevail.”
Once in the underworld, and after the blackout, the subject acts on faith. She takes whatever comes her way, with courage. The idea with exploring one’s unconscious through diving, going down a tube, falling, or getting sucked up into a void is to get acquainted with a specific context outside of norms and routines. “This is the place,” Rich says. “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.” This passage demonstrates even more what is a classical situation in shamanism, namely, morphing and shape-shifting. In this place, there is no gender. There is only the recognition of what happens when one surrenders to one’s own words as spells.
The reason why I want to see this poem as such an exquisite example of how modern literature joins in with the articulation of the ancient ways of transforming the self, is because of the manner in which this particular poem reminds us of the difference between begging for power and commanding power. The poem as a prayer begs, as a spell it commands. A look at the last stanza gives us a clue as to how performative Rich’s words are. She commands that syntax be broken, ordering an anomaly for the category of the plural One to embody first, and then perform the spell that is in the book without names. “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.”
What Rich does in this poem is not merely assign agency to an external power, another expert diver, or a divine helping hand, but embody the words that assign to her an ambiguous and mysterious task, and which empowers her with the concluding: ‘so be it, as I have said.’ After the journey is done, the only ritual that needs to be performed is that of sharpening the knife.
A Pumped-up Moon
If we turn briefly to Anne Sexton’s confessional poem, “Wanting to Die,” we can identify similar shamanic steps towards creating a context outside the norms and whose rules empower the subject through the embodiment of words and not just their enunciation.
Wanting to Die
Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.
In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.
I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.
Still-born, they don’t always die,
but dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.
To thrust all that life under your tongue!—
that, all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death’s a sad bone; bruised, you’d say,
and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.
Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,
leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love whatever it was, an infection.
This poem is also about a ritual. It invokes the significance of finding and using the right tools, the right language, in order to perform a voyage to the spirit world. This is a poem about travelling with the suicides, with their spirits, to their place of balance, as Sexton puts it, to where the suicides meet to rage at “the fruit a pumped-up moon.” But these are the suicide spirits that have gone before her. This poem is about being a psychopomp, a shaman leading souls to their places in the other world.
The special language of the suicides enables the speaker to declare herself. As she says, “Twice I have so simply declared myself, / have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy, / have taken on his craft, his magic.” Here Sexton does what a sorcerer who needs to fix her neighbor does. But what is her intention, we may ask, besides recording her preoccupation with the impersonality of spirit and its unsentimental acting as a liaison between the dead and the living? Sexton also uses words as spells to create a correspondence between her ‘unnamable lust’ and magic as a symbolic action with intent. She in engaged in signing her text, sealing it as a verbal spell for the situation of the ‘suddenly left’ note, or the ‘almost as if there’ voice on the phone, or the forever tears over the infectious love that ruined everything.
This act of sealing the words, of ‘thrust[ing] all that life under your tongue’ is also a way of indirectly suggesting the power of spiritual, physical and visual effect for personal transformation. Sexton transfers this verbal power into the poem itself, a poem that she fabricates while in a state of trance. The poem begins with the statement that “most days I can’t remember,” which suggests that when the writer is inspired, she is not of this world. “Wanting to Die” is also poem that she gives to herself as a token, while journeying with the dead. The function of this token is to map a route, and then remind the speaker of the winding road. “Words are maps,” Adrienne Rich conjectures, and we can see how Sexton very much believes that too.
Both of the poems discussed here deal with the idea of getting out of the Self and moving towards a form of transformation that is not about one self but about one’s being in the world as an authentic self. What Rich and Sexton suggest is that by undertaking a journey of diving into the Self, one can get a glimpse into one’s authentic self, the self that is found behind the cultural mask, the powerful mask that pumps our blood with power. But the sea of the unconscious in which we dive is another story. “The sea is not a question of power,” Rich says, but rather a story of morphing body with water, and spirit with the unnamable lust. These are poems of power because they have a heart beat. We hear their pulse, and we’re there.
In perspective, the value of reading these poems from a shamanic point of view resides in the fact they can be said to have anticipated the full-blown shift in consciousness, going from the 60s counterculture to the New Age. The counter culture of the 60s was about rebellion, going against the status quo, acting, and becoming aware. Drugs were often used in order to facilitate the expansion of consciousness. In contrast, what we can say about the New Age as influenced by the 60s hippiedom, is that the aim here is to integrate the new ’cosmic’ shifts of the time through acceptance, altered states of consciousness through meditation or old shamanic techniques, and engage in a new form of feminism as facilitated through goddess oriented religions. Rich and Sexton have paved the way towards moving from all that is wrong with life as a woman to getting it right. While Sexton paid with her life for her opting out of society, for saying ‘no’ to depression and patriarchy, Rich remained an activist and fighter for women’s rights to the end of her life.
In this latter connection it is important to make a final point about the way in which these poems speak the language of (re)integration – either with the higher powers (Sexton in some heaven) – or with the power of male dominance over women. I have focused on Rich’s intriguing line about ‘the thing itself’. Now, as most of us know, this is a line that we find in the famous poem by Wallace Stevens, “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” Firstly, one may wonder, why has Adrienne Rich chosen a line from a man to talk about merging and morphing beyond gender issues? Secondly, what does she find of value in Stevens’s poetry as it addresses a metaphysical question of Platonic proportions, something that Rich departs from? Here one can argue that what she means to suggest is that she is going back to the place she has learned from. In this sense it can be argued that what she does is, indeed, invoke the words of a guide, one who may also have followed in the footsteps of all those who want to keep it close to nature, spirit, and the ancestors. Paying tribute to knowledge rather than lamenting over an oppressive ideology is quite a generous act on her part.
In Rich’s poem we learn about the craft of poetry. How do we say what we mean? Sexton relegated this question to the language of the suicides. But for Rich, concretizing the image, quite in the same way that Stevens does as he talks about his famous “Scrawny cry / A chorister whose c preceded the choir,” is part of the idea that we can only trust ourselves through our senses. With this she goes a step further than her master for whom ideas behind the material thing, the articulation of the c preceding the choir was, as Stevens put it, “part of the colossal sun, / Surrounded by its choral rings, / Still far away.” Rich understands that in order to get to the thing itself one has to rely on one’s own self. Not only on one’s vision – used to see things far and near – but rather, on one’s whole being and everything that one has got to give.
If we look at Stevens’s poem below, we can see how the same concreteness of the image is what preoccupies Rich. But whereas for Stevens the thing itself goes back to struggling with Plato, suggesting ways in which we can undo the fixation with one-to-one relations, Rich is more interested in going further back in time. She wants the time that comes close to nature, before nature got filtered through religions, cults, and ideas. Here is what Stevens says, and which Rich takes for a ride in her own underworld, or cave.
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
Stevens emphasizes the power of language to create reference experience through signaling the potential for a new knowledge for reality. For Rich, this power comes as a result of reading, and hence demystifying the book of myths. Diving into the wreck as a concrete act is not about accumulating knowledge, but rather, about being in the know. What distinguishes Rich from a mere poet is her ability to surrender to the water, air, fire, and earth. All the elements that also go into the composition of her body. Her body is her poetry. As such, everything is already steeped well into a conscious act of grounding. Rich does not dream her reality far from what is under her nose. She derives her knowledge from surrendering to her senses. She makes use of tools: a knife, rubber, a mask, a belt, and she knows how to extend her magical cord. She creates connections to those who have walked the path to self-knowledge before her. Within this web of connections nothing is dead or dreadful. Not even the language we invent to communicate to our deadly and deadening souls.
Writing from a shamanic perspective means writing for the spirit. The same spirit that wakes up the poet’s awareness of her body. In this sense, both poems “Diving into the Wreck” and “Wanting to Die” are affirmations of the fearlessness that goes into acknowledging the idea that poetry is all about being totally exposed. Psychologically, the poems act as educators about life and death, about turning life and death into a poetics of transition. The poems are clean metaphors for a fresh mind to engage with. They suggest, however explicitly, that exposure is a form of unmasking ideals, while also dressing up the poet for the big ritual of crossing over into other worlds. The whole point is to get to the magic and then bring it back.
Erickson, Milton (1991) My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. Edited and with a commentary by Sidney Rosen. London: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition.
Harner, Michael (1987) “The Ancient Wisdom in Shamanic Cultures.” Shamanism. An Expanded View of Reality. Wheaton, Ill: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Harner, Michael (1990) The Way of the Shaman. New York: Harper One.
Jong, Erica (1973) “Visionary Anger.” Ms. 2, no. 1, July. (30-4.)
Lankton, Steven (1985) Elements and Dimensions of an Ericksonian Approach. Ericksonian Monographs. Nr. 1. The Milton H. Erickson Foundation. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel, Taylor & Francis Group.
Templeton, Alice (1994) The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1975) On Certainy. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
 Poem in public domain from the Academy of American Poets: From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich. [http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15228]
 See the general discussion of alchemy in The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Ed. Robert E. Bjork. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
 Poem in public domain from the Poetry Foundation: Anne Sexton, “Wanting to Die” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171275]
 Poem in public domain from the Poetry Foundation: "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself", from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens and renewed 1982 by Holly Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182814]
Received: July 10, 2013, Published: July 10, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Camelia Elias