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Analysis of Poem 'Diving into the Wreck' by Adrienne Rich

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Adrienne Rich (circa 1970s)

Adrienne Rich (circa 1970s)

Adrienne Rich and a Summary of 'Diving into the Wreck'

'Diving into the Wreck' is one of Adrienne Rich's most important poems on the subject of women's rights and the individual's journey of self-discovery.

Using primarily metaphor and strong imagery, Rich explores the political idea of women's history being a wreck—the sunken relationship between male and female—where the dive is both exploration into the past and a new search for a valid truth.

In a free verse environment, Rich is able to build layers of possibility through allegory and simile and other devices—the personal quest for the wreck is a solo venture, the poem's lines short then long, suspenseful.

The dive itself involves the descent of a ladder—which is always there, like a timeline—and the use of mask, flippers, knife and a camera (presumably to record the whole immersive experience), the necessary equipment for what could be a dangerous mission.

The speaker, first person and occasionally becoming a collective We, prepares for what seems to be potentially dangerous work by reading a 'book of myths', the stories that help put everything into perspective by revealing a new reality.

The 10 stanzas form a rough travelogue, from schooner to wreck and back again, the reader having to negotiate the ebb and flow of varying lines, enjambment and every so often, unusual syntax.

There is also a surreal feel to this poem, the speaker uncertain of what's to come, not knowing where ocean begins, losing consciousness, aware of having to breathe differently in the water.

As the poem progresses, both speaker and reader combine in their search for reality—the wreck itself becoming known, the lines coming together then loosening, the meaning never quite fully revealing itself, like something caught in the swirling currents deep underwater.

First published in the book of the same name Diving into the Wreck (1973), this collection established Adrienne Rich as one of the strong voices of the women's movement.

As Stephanie Burt writes, in The Atlantic, December 2020:

'Before Wreck, Rich was an eminent left-wing poet. After it, she was a public figure, showing other women hurt by patriarchy, by domestic isolation, by competition, how to claim submerged selves, how to read the “book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.'

Her pioneering poetry has been noted:

'In her poetry and prose....Adrienne Rich has supplied us with a wealth of metaphors and images that help to define and understand our enterprise as feminist critics and historians, as women dedicated to exploring our collective and personal histories so as to better understand where we are now. It is this drive for self-knowledge, in its broadest sense, that impels each of us, like the explorer in "Diving into the Wreck", to first question the 'book of myths' - all that has been passed on to us of the lives of women of other times and cultures.'

-Sonia Stein, 'Diving Into The Wreck: A History of Our Own', JSTOR, 1978

Neil Astley, editor of the anthology Staying Alive, Bloodaxe, 2002, says of the poem:

'her underwater exploration is a metaphorical journey back through the mind which turns into a feminist argument with the poetic tradition she emerged from.'

This is essentially true but the poem is far more nuanced—there is no resolution, there is only ongoing mythology created by those whose names are never shown, those who have to dive into their own wrecks to discover the treasure there amongst the sunken framework?

'Diving into the Wreck' can leave the reader behind from time to time but can be better understood by reading other poems by Rich, such as 'An Atlas of the Difficult World', 'Cartographies of Silence', 'Planetarium' and 'Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law'.

As she herself said: 'poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know.'

Words and Meaning in Certain Stanzas

First Stanza

Cousteau: Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997), French underwater explorer, photographer and writer.

Fifth Stanza

crenellated: indented, notched

Seventh Stanza

the drowned face: a female figurehead at the bow of an old ship.

Ninth Stanza

vermeil: gilded silver or bronze/gold plate.

'Diving into the Wreck' by Adrienne Rich

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 damage

worn by salt and away 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.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Diving into the Wreck'

First Stanza

The opening line of this poem is a little mysterious, suggesting that this dive will be no ordinary activity. It's as if there's a set procedure to go through, preparation, before the actual dive.The book of myths—what could that be? Are we in ancient Greece? Is the speaker referring to the bible or some classic tome?

The speaker's initial tone is matter-of-fact, business-like. Before anything else . . . the myths. This implies that the speaker has certain stories to take on board, to understand, before committing to the water.

A myth is often based on fact yet through culture, spread of word and time becomes more often than not, fantastic and exaggerated.

There then follows a serious side to the exercise: the diver has to be equipped with camera, knife-blade, body-armor, flippers, mask. And she has to do this solo, as an individual. Not for her an attentive team (unlike Frenchman Cousteau, the famous t.v. diver)—this is strictly a one-woman journey.

So the reader is right beside the speaker, at the outset, in her mind, observing as the gear is donned and the thoughts appear. The 12 lines are relatively short, so the reading speed is slowed down, breaths taken with punctuation. They're chopped up, enjambment loosely applied, so the reader has the option to take a breath at the end of each line or carry on.

Second Stanza

Nine lines, short again, one with a single word. The reader is introduced to the ladder and also the notion of the collective We—this is a well used ladder, symbolic of time which is innocent yet necessary; it's always there, disappearing down into the depths of emotion.

That word sundry can mean unimportant or various. Only those who use the ladder know why it exists—implying that those who do not have to dive cannot know of the experience.

Third Stanza

The descent begins, the speaker describing the air as they clumsily climb rung after rung. It must be difficult. She's still breathing but feels like an insect—those strange flippers and body-armor and mask. She's quite alone, heading for the water but uncertain of the ocean because there's no-one there to tell her.

Note the repeated phrases (anaphora) . . . the oxygen . . . the blue light . . . the clear atoms . . . bringing the slow, awkward descent into perspective.

Fourth Stanza

Again, repeated phrases using . . . and then . . . she's still breathing the air, slightly panicking as the thought of the ocean approaches reality. Her mask is all important, it helps bring power, affecting the blood. In what way? Could it be the mask is a symbol—she has to 'wear' a different persona in order to progress.

She is immersed in the sea, the great depths of emotional history, unconnected to conscious power but having to learn a new way of handling the environment, of controlling the space. Knowing others have used the ladder means that she feels more alone?

Fifth Stanza

The speaker becomes distracted—there are others living deep down, they have crenellated (indented) fans (large leaf-like appendages?) and move with the currents. Are these humanoids? They have always lived in the water so are not alien as such. They breathe differently, she breathes differently.

Sixth Stanza

She reminds herself of the reason for the descent, to explore the wreck, to learn about the damage, somehow glean information about it and the treasures it might still hold.

And the words—the words of the poem itself, of poetry, to be used as tools for understanding? Her poetry, her poetic language will be a guiding force when it comes to orientation, the geography of the wreck and where the treasure might be hidden. These words will help establish the truth.

Her lamp will light up the wreck, reveal its structure.

Seventh Stanza

The speaker is after the wreck itself, (and keeps repeating this fact), to reinforce the notion of a self-validated truth. She's not interested in the myth, the stories that might deflect and undermine.

The face looking up is the figurehead at the bow, catching the sun rays, an eerie image of a woman damaged by salt (tears and bitterness?), the ribs (Spare Rib magazine) adding to the idea that the wreck is a body and waiting to be explored for treasure.

The tentative haunters are those phantoms that haunt the wreck? Or the other inhabitants with crenellated fans, as mentioned before? Those women who in the past have hesitated and are now gone, transformed into haunters?

Eighth Stanza

The shortest stanza of the poem has the speaker again underlining the idea that this is the place, this is the wreck, the real thing.

There is a need to authenticate the arrival . . . And I am here . . . as both male and female, mermaid and merman, black hair streaming, body protected in armor. Two in one, circling the wreck, going into the hold, the place where cargo is stored.

So the speaker is woman and man, in one person, an androgyne? The classic, mythical mermaid, the invented (new) merman unifying in order to explore the wreck, discover the treasures.

Ninth Stanza

The self-discovery continues, the speaker now unified gender-wise details the wreck's cargo: the sunken culture, historical baggage left inside barrels, the instruments now useless . . . once upon a time life was plain sailing or so it seemed . . . men were men, women were women, most knew their place socially and sexually.

But convention foundered, the once proud ship sunk and now here is the speaker having to dive deep, alone but conscious of the many who have had to use the ladder in order to discover their truth.

Tenth Stanza

The dualistic nature of the 'new' speaker is reaffirmed. Identity of a different kind is apparent . . . is the speaker now spokesperson for the collective woman? Is there a new mythology developing, ongoing stories of anonymous individuals, truth never established in finite terms.

Returning to the wreck as divers in a cycle of self-discovery seems to be the outcome, continued exploration of past cultures and cargo, learning a new language that will best help understanding.

Sources

  • Poetry Foundation
  • Book Review: ‘The Power of Adrienne Rich,’ by Hilary Holladay, The New York Times
  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
  • Review: ‘The Power of Adrienne Rich’ by Hilary Holladay, The Atlantic
  • Stein, Sondra. “‘Diving into the Wreck’: A History of Our Own.” Feminist Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, 1978, pp. 127–139. JSTOR. Accessed 13 July 2021.

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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