First having read the book of myths,
There is a ladder.
I go down.
First the air is blue and then
And now: it is easy to forget
I came to explore the wreck.
the thing I came for:
This is the place.
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
We are, I am, you are
What do you notice first? What about the title? Where Williams’s title identified an object, which was then named in the poem as well, Rich titles her poem after an action. The title is dynamic, and so there’s a good chance the poem will be too. What more does the title suggest? Along with mentioning Jacques Cousteau, the title connects an action with exploration and investigation. So now, what wreck? Is the poem an account of an adventure from some vacation cruise? How might you decide that the poem is a metaphor? The first line announces some kind of departure from the literal with "the book of myths." Archeologists may be informed by books of legend, but if Rich were referring to any such literal source, she would be more specific. There isn’t a single "book of myths." Second, unlike Cousteau, this diver will go it alone. Given the cumbersome equipment and the importance of safety, this sounds unrealistic.
So, if this poem is an extended metaphor, the next questions might concern the necessary preparations for the dive: the book, the camera, and the knife. What implications are present in these details? (This is a good general question.) The book suggests a history or previous stories about the "wreck," whatever it may be. The camera is a device for recording what is factually present, as opposed to what is purportedly present. And the knife suggests danger. The last two are consistent with an actual wreck.
Something else you may notice reading through the poem several times is that the idea of being alone changes as the poem continues, but this change takes place in a rather unusual way. You might ask, therefore, what significance there is in the movement from "alone" to "among so many who have always lived here" to "We circle silently / about the wreck" to "I am she: I am he / whose drowned face sleeps," and finally, "We are, I am, you are / . . . the one who find our way / back. . . ."? By the end, the identity of the narrator is both one and many. Why?
Usually, the movement from one to many would indicate that the speaker found a community, belonging, or companionship. But here, the shifting identity, which moves between one and many, and between male and female, isn’t immediately comfortable. Whether, as Rich says, "by cowardice or courage," the exploration and discovery of new territory is still in a kind of uncertainty about identity, if not an identity crisis. At the end, the names (plural) of these explorers, "do not appear" in the book of myths, indicating both a past disenfranchisement of some sort and a future change, created through the exploration of the wreck.
So, by asking questions without reference to biographical information, it’s possible to isolate two significant thematic elements of Rich’s poem, one of exploration and claiming territory, the other of transformation of identity, perhaps including gender identity. When looking at the date at the bottom of the poem, it’s tempting to ask how the poem connects to the more general history of the early 1970s, particularly to the women’s movement and the cultural change of that era.
However, it is not necessary to determine more specifically what the wreck might be. There is no need to reduce the poem to feminine identity and gender stereotypes, although clearly that element is present. There also is no need to limit the poem to a piece about artistic self-discovery. The poem doesn’t have an "answer," and the result of personal inquiry or shared inquiry should only be to narrow and clarify some likely thematic possibilities, not to eliminate all conflict and ambiguity.
Clearly there are further elements of the poem to question as well, such as the relationship between lineation (or form in general) and content. The opposition—or perhaps balance is the better word—of "damage" and "treasures that prevail" is another intriguing issue. In a lengthier discussion, these and other elements could be explored.
Published in partnership with the Great Books Foundation.