Diving into the Wreck

Author Adrienne Rich (1929– )
First Published 1973, in Diving into the Wreck
Type of Poem Narrative

The Poem

"Diving into the Wreck" is a poem of ten stanzas in free verse. The poem is written in the first person. Sometimes poets use the first-person device to create a character who may have different values or beliefs from the author. In this case, however, no distinction between speaker and poet is suggested. The first-person voice allows the poet to address the reader directly, as if recounting her own experience.

The poem narrates the speaker’s quest as she explores a sunken ship to discover the cause of the disaster and to salvage whatever treasures remain. The sea is a traditional literary symbol of the unconscious. To dive is to probe beneath the surface for hidden meanings, to learn about one’s submerged desires and emotions. In this poem, the diver is exploring a wreck—a ship that has failed.

Preparing to dive, she reads the "book of myths" for guidance, but she must leave the book behind in order to gain direct knowledge without the intermediaries of history and language:

the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth.

She is alone in her journey. Unlike the French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau with his many helpers, she must be alone, for the scientist may work with a team, but the quest requires isolation.

The poem is the story of a descent into the ocean to discover important knowledge of the past, to examine a wreck and to salvage the cargo. The poet describes the tools that are needed for the dive and the diver’s transformation as she descends. By the time she reaches the wreck, she has become a new kind of creature, a "she/he." As the diver learns, the myth that was the starting point of her journey is incomplete and inadequate: It does not tell her story. She must, therefore, return to tell her own tale.

Forms and Devices

The poem is an extended metaphor in which the dive comes to signify the diver’s quest for knowledge and power. Her descent into the primal depths of the sea of life, of consciousness, transforms her: She becomes a creature of a different world. Her discussion of the equipment she uses suggests her transformation. The "awkward mask" and crippling flippers are inappropriate for the land-based world but essen- tial for the underwater journey. Human when she starts, she becomes "like an insect" as she crawls down the ladder. It is as if she is reversing the process of evolution as she reenters the ocean, the original source of life on earth. Once underwater, she notes that "you breathe differently down here." When she reaches the drowned vessel, she learns her true identity; she is both mermaid and merman, man and woman. There is a ritualistic quality to this stanza, as the speaker remarks, "We circle silently/ about the wreck." No longer the single diver, she has become a "we," both male and female: "I am she: I am he." She apparently has become the drowned vessel as well, the boat and its figurehead:

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes

whose breasts still bear the stress

whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies

obscurely inside barrels.

By delving into the mystery, looking beneath the surface, the diver learns the secret of her own submerged power. She/he is thus restored to a complete, multifaceted identity. The diver is not only the boat and its cargo, a figurehead, an observer, an explorer. She/he is also a participant in the disaster: "we are the half-destroyed instruments/ that once held to a course." The implicit question is, can the diver carry out a salvage operation? Can the treasures she finds, "the silver, copper, vermeil cargo" be saved? The poem does not answer the question, but ends as the diver recapitulates the story of her arrival at this point, explaining how she/he found her way here carrying a book of myths "in which/ our names do not appear."

Themes and Meanings

The theme of descent and return is a traditional one in Western literature. In Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey (c. 800 B.C.), the hero Odysseus descends to the underworld to consult with dead prophets and heroes. Because of their great wisdom, they tell him how to return safely, and he learns how to return home from his expedition. Adrienne Rich has written a modern version of this descent theme.

The implications of this wreck must be examined. What exactly has failed? Perhaps the "wreck" is the covering up of subconscious desires and knowledge as one grows up. Perhaps the diver represents all humans, submerging into the depths of personal histories to find out who they really are. This is certainly one possibility; however, if one examines the context in which this poem was written, one may learn more about Rich’s intentions.

One of the clues to the meaning of the wreck and the diver is the last statement about the "book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear." At the time she wrote this poem, Rich was learning and writing about women’s experiences. Much of this material was unavailable before the women’s movement began in the late 1960’s. Rich was one of the pioneers in the rediscovery of women’s history and women’s literature. In 1971, she wrote an essay entitled "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." In the article, she wrote about an awakening of women’s consciousness, their "drive to self-knowledge." She wrote, "language has trapped as well as liberated us." She urged women to reexamine their history, to learn "to see—and therefore live—afresh."

Thus, the "book of myths" may be a metaphorical equivalent for the language which has trapped and liberated women. The book of myths may be Western history—the story of men’s lives and experiences—that does not speak about women. If the history books do not tell women’s stories, they must search the past (dive into the ocean) and find the evidence so that they can retell the old stories. Perhaps the wreck is meant to suggest the lost treasures of women’s lives and ancient stories; perhaps it suggests the failure of Western history and civilization as they became rigidly patriarchal and denied the value of women. In order to solve this problem, then, to salvage the treasure, it is implied that the book of myths will need to be rewritten to include the stories of women. That is, Western civilization will need to accommodate the vision and insights of women.

To accomplish this new vision, Rich imagined a new kind of creature—the mermaid/merman, the she/he of the poem. This figure, by using the necessary tools—the knife, the camera, the flippers, the ladder, the book of myths—might return to the surface with some of the treasure from the wreck. She/he might be able to tell new stories, write a new book of myths about a new kind of person. Yet this poem does not show the diver returning to the surface. Instead, in subsequent poems, Rich continued the work of retelling the stories of women and salvaging the treasures of women’s lost histories.