Monday, April 23, 2012

Adrienne Rich, "Diving Into the Wreck", poem and analysis

To remember Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year, and to commemorate Poetry Month.  A study of the symbols she used in this personal examination...

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
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.

it is 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
will begin.

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
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
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 weed

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 this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.
There were a ton of symbols in this poem to evaluate. I chose to concentrate on the ladder, simply because the phrase “hanging innocently” struck me as curious. So my interpretation will likely vary from whoever selects the mask, the knife, or the camera as symbols to evaluate...

As noted, Rich stated that this poem “is” an experience rather than about an experience, and I think what fits for me is the idea of searching our memories, our past. And that is a journey that can only be done alone, subjectively. So using the symbolism of the dive, and the shipwreck, it appears to me that she wants to go back and figure out what happened in her life (her journey, or course) that left her damaged in some way.

To do this, she has to dive deep in the water, which is not pretty but black and dark, symbolizing that the journey is fearful. Rather than jump right into the water as some divers do, she has to use the ladder to slowly descend into the water, indicating hesitancy. Also, the ladder hanging off the boat requires her to face the boat as she went down. This means she literally can’t see what she is getting into: “there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin.” So as she retreats into her memories, she’s not exactly sure at what point she’ll find clues or meaning. She says in verse 41, 42 “I have to learn alone to turn my body without force”…here she has to let go and turn away from the ladder to explore, letting go of the way out.

The ladder is significant as a symbol because it goes both ways: she could easily quit the journey and go back up. Also, because the water creates buoyancy, she really has to hold onto it to “go down”, so it’s not an easy task to go into the unknown (the sea of memories). The water would be pushing her back up, and the ladder would be so easy to just forget it and head back up to the deck. So the difficulty of the journey means that the rewards of such a journey must be greater.

She wants to find the damage but also what is left of value; she sees something in herself flawed but she wants to inherently know she still has value, something lasting. As she looks at the damage, she shows a sense of gentleness by saying “I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly”. She wants to know “the thing itself and not the myth”, which I take to mean she wants to find the root of her problem rather than the possibly nicer/easier story that she’s told herself (or possibly the excuses she’s made for herself).

It seems that as she explores the wreck, she finds the damage nearest the deepest part of the ship (herself) where her figurative heart is (because “the ribs of the disaster curving their assertion” are what protect the heart from damage). The mermaid and the merman she meets could represent parental figures, her origin of life, but I can’t figure out much on that, except that I think it is her parents as she says “I am she: I am he”, which a biological child could actually be, parts of both.

The reference to the journey of memories and damage could also be seen in lines 80-86: valuable things are still part of her “silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies obscurely inside” so maybe she’s trying to retrieve part of her value. As the half-destroyed instruments, the log and the compass that she mention both connotate the wreck itself: the water-eaten log sinks (the ship), the fouled compass gives poor navigation (the journey).

But in the last few verses, as she finds her way back (we, I, you), I’m lost as to what she’s achieved in her journey. What was the knife there to cut? What would the camera record? And what is with the book of myths?


  1. Amy, I love this poem and your wonderful analysis. I've bee rereading Rich since she died, and I'm blown over again by the power of her words.

    I just found your fabulous blog through Amazon. (Thank you for reviewing Use Your Words. You made my day--or week!!)

    I look forward to reading more here!


  2. Thanks Kate! I intend to post the review of your book here too, next week. I'm really enjoying the prompts, especially when it's 5:am and my only time to write!

    I have given you the "Really Know Your Stuff" Award.
    Check it out here -

  4. Amy, this is an amazing ans beautiful poem...and one I have copied down so I can read it many more times. I really appreciated your analysis of the poem, it's great.

    Rich says in the very beginning of the poem that she reads the book of myths before putting on her body armor and diving into her memory...maybe the book of myths is her erroneous memories, the things she remembers which she thinks are incorrect. Maybe this is why she's taking this journey

    The kniife could be a weapn to protect herslef from extremely painful, damaging memories an issues...

    I still need to think about this and and try to analyze it more. When/if I come up with anything at any point, I'll let you know!

  5. I believe this poem is about the canon of anonymous female writers. That is why it ends "our names do not appear"

    1. Because she has drifted away from a male-centric world. Which requires the mentioning of the names. While women have been anonymous for a very long time.

  6. I think the "book of myths" are the lies the author told herself or false history. If you look at the authors bio, you find out she thought she failed herlf as a poet and as a women. It can also mean false history. Since she is a feminist and history has it that men are inferiour to women, she thinks they are all lies.

  7. im trying to figure out book of myths, loaded camera and her knife . she uses it in the first stanza and her last. do you have any insights?

    Merman: maybe she was talking about her husband? her husband died before the poem was finished.

  8. Transter,
    I've been thinking the loaded camera would be her already taken (loaded) that make up the mind's pictures of the past. The knife I imagine may be to cut loose something...divers always take a knife in case they are entangled. So??? Not sure. Merman, I have know clue.

  9. Rich was in a lifelong partnership with Michelle Cliff from 1976. The "book of myths in which our names do not appear" could refer to the heterosexist erasure of people, relationships and history that are not straight. See how even in this thread people assume this is about her husband and don't even realise she is well-known for writing about what she called compulsory heterosexuality. Know your stuff much?

    1. The poem was written round about 1972, so what relevance does Michelle have to it?

  10. Good start in your analysis but there's a lot more going on in the poem, some of which is captured in this page maintained by the Univ of Illinois English department.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. I believe this poem may allude to Robinson Crusoe story. There is the "book of myths", the "knife" and the (ship) "wreck".

  12. Book of myths are traditions, cultures and experiences of her society

  13. Book of Myths could easily refer to De Beauvoir's "The Second Sex"

  14. diving into the wreck. If you are familiar with zong! it almost seems as if this poem is a poem about the reading of Zong!. Check it out

  15. the question is ..It is possible to rewrite the history to rebirth the silenced voices of women while we still have the same masculine-centered language !!!

  16. the poem teaches us to survive rather than being a victim

  17. a poem of disaster, but without a doubt, a great poem of our times

  18. This poem refers to her journey of exploring herself. The book of myths is probably referring to the traditional gender roles of women, and the knife she takes on her journey to "cut through the traditional gender roles."
    "I am she: I am he" is Rich is splitting herself into both female and male. She was in a relationship with a woman, so it makes sense.

  19. wonderful analysis dear really great analysis.