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.
it’s 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.




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.

back to "How to Read a Poem"

Published in partnership with the Great Books Foundation.