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Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Lack of Imagination

I absolutely cannot imagine what it would be like to be a woman in a non-patriarchal society." — Adrienne Rich

Introduction and Text of "Diving into the Wreck"

Adrienne Rich's speaker in "Diving into the Wreck" claims that she has read "the book of myths." Note that by stating she has read "the" book of myths she is implying that there is only one such book. This unfortunate beginning leaves the speaker's thought processes nowhere to go to explore truth. By beginning with this claim, the speaker promises to take her listeners into sheer fantasy.

While the speaker creates a fascinating, metaphorical undersea diving expedition, she concludes with a provable falsehood. Her so-called "wreck" becomes nothing but a straw man, built from the beginning claim of her having read "the book of myths."

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.
Otherwise
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 damages
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.

Adrienne Rich reading "Diving into the Wreck"

Wreck of cargo ship "E. Russ"

Wreck of cargo ship "E. Russ"

Which "Book of Myths"?

There isn’t a single 'book of myths'.”

— Edward Hirsch

Commentary

Adrienne Rich did compose one poem that stands the test of time as a truly successful piece; that poem is "Living in Sin." Unfortunately, "Diving into he Wreck," a poem much more widely anthologized than Rich's fine, successful "Living in Sin," does not attain the literary value of Rich's masterpiece.

First Movement: A Single Book of Myths

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.

Adrienne Rich's speaker in "Diving into the Wreck" claims that she has read the book of myths, implying that there in only one "book of myths." The speaker does not identify any book of myths she had read, a significant omission because there are many books of myths—Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, Islamic, ancient Greek and Roman, and these identify only the five major religions and the two ancient cultural nationalities that have influenced Western civilization from its beginning through their books of myths.

This unnamed "book of myths" springs from the speaker's imagination, as she begins her journey to explore the metaphoric "wreck." Armed with the information that she gathered from reading this non-existent book of myths, the speaker prepares for her journey. She takes a camera and a sharp knife with her. She dresses like a scuba-diver in "body-armor of black rubber / the absurd flipper / the grave and awkward mask."

Lest her listeners think she is really going on a Cousteau-like diving expedition, she disabuses them of that notion—she will not be aboard "the sun-flooded schooner" with "an assiduous team"; she will be here alone. She will remain in her library/study while examining further the unidentified "book of myths."

The speaker creates an extended metaphor likening her scrutiny of the book of myths to diving down to a shipwreck. She compares herself to the divers who plunge deep below the Atlantic to gather information about the Titanic. The speaker, therefore, has made a judgment about that book of myths; it is like a giant ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank into the sea, and now this brave speaker will determine the cause and possibly salvage whatever she can from the wreck.

Second Movement: Guilty Ladders

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.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

The speaker notes the ladder, which she uses to descend into the water. The ladder "is always there / hanging innocently." The comic effect jars the senses: what would a guilty ladder do? Hang guiltily, one supposes. Also rather comical, as well as substance-free, is the claim, "We know what it is for / we who have used it." Whether they have used it or not, most conscious individuals over the age of two know what a ladder is for.

The absurdities are beginning to accrue, damaging the credibility of this speaker and achievement of the art, especially her remark about the ladder, which, if it were not used, would be merely, "a piece of maritime floss / some sundry equipment." Of course, any equipment that has no specific use would be considered superfluous.

Third Movement: Descending into the Unknown

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.

The speaker descends the ladder into the ocean and cannot tell "when the ocean / will begin." She reports that her flippers cripple her, and she crawls like an insect down the ladder. She seems to have difficulty approaching that "book of myths."

Fourth Movement: An Ocean Filled with Air

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.

The speaker describes the color of the air, seeming to have forgotten that her metaphor created a diver entering the ocean: there would be no air. She claims she is "blacking out," but she also claims that her mask is powerful. The mask does a remarkable thing: "it pumps my blood with power." This claims creates another absurdity; the mask protects the diver from drowning by covering her nose and furnishing oxygen; it has nothing to do with directly pumping blood.

Alone, she has to learn to how turn her body in the water. She is creating image upon image, claim upon claim that offer nothing of substance. She seems to imply that someone should have been there to help her learn to "turn [her] body without force"—but never reveals who or why should assistance would be necessary.

Fifth Movement: Ocean Breathing Is Surprisingly Different

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.

The speaker now reports that she almost forgets why she came, as she observes the sea creatures that are used to their habitat, and that "you breathe differently down here"—another superfluous remark, given the fact that she would be equipped with diving gear supplying the oxygen—obviously breathing with diving equipment would cause one to "breathe differently."

Sixth Movement: Words, Maps, Purpose

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

In a failed attempt to bring the metaphor together, the speaker baldly states what the reader has known all along, "I came to explore the wreck." She adds, "The words are purposes. / The words are maps." Again, she had added text without any new information to further her narrative. All agree that words have purpose and are similar to maps. The speaker adds, "I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail." Again, nothing new here, that is what all divers who explore shipwrecks do.

Seventh Movement: Circles of Unreason

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 damages
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

The speaker then emphasizes that she came for the wreck itself "not the story of the wreck." This metaphorically presents a very huge problem. Remembering that the "wreck" is the "book of myths." "Myths" are stories, and although she now claims she is really after the thing itself and not the myth, she has no way of securing that thing, because it exists only in the "book of myths."

The speaker is now asking the reader to accept only her interpretation of the myths and not what others have found. She is implying that only she has truth of the thing; she can take the myth and make it not be a myth.

Eighth Movement: Because the Speaker Says So

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

In order to turn the wreck/myth into "the thing," the speaker creates a drama of a mermaid and merman who "circle silently / about the wreck / we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he." The speaker is now transforming herself from a mere reader/diver into an androgynous creature that has the delicious ability to report about the wreck merely because the speaker says so.

Ninth Movement: A Question of Death

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

This creature is actually dead, displaying a "drowned face [that] sleeps with open eyes." The open eyes, unfortunately, cannot see any better than closed eyes when they are situated in the head of a corpse. But then again, maybe they are not really dead, for she claims, "we are the half-destroyed instruments that once worked" but because of that iceberg now lie ruined beneath the waves.

Tenth Movement: Sculpting from Misinformed Fancy

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.

Apparently having grown tired of the water drama, the speaker sheds the scuba-gear and rouses up a universal, all-encompassing, profound statement: that "book of myths" does not contain our names. Whose names? Surely, she means to call to attention all of those women who have been left out of history. But this claim is simply not true.

In fact, there are many "books of myths" that contain the names and activities of many women throughout history, for example Greek mythology, Hindu, Norse, Eqyptian, etc. According to Joanna Gillan, writing in "Ten Powerful and Fearsome Women of the Ancient World,"

There have been female figures throughout history who held powerful roles or played significantly influential parts too. Throughout history there have been many powerful women who have led nations or guided armies into war, renowned not only as fearsome fighters, but also as cunning strategists and inspirational leaders. There were others who made a name for themselves in a domain traditionally held by men and whose stories, carried forward over the centuries, continue to be told today.

The speaker of "Diving into the Wreck" has made the disingenuous claim that women have been omitted from mythological and historical narratives, based on her own fabricated notion of one non-existent book of myths.

The reader who accepts [Adrienne Rich's] vision uncritically has probably repressed the real anxieties accompanying self-recognition and personal change."

— Cary Nelson

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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