Poem Analysis: Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’

Poem analysis, from a student writer? Absolutely. We publish student writers if their work is a good fit for Tweetspeak Poetry. Sometimes, these works come to us through referrals—often through the teachers of our reading and writing workshops. Today’s poem analysis comes from 16-year-old Sara Barkat. Get your diving gear ready!

The Poem

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.
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 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.

Diving into the Wreck Poem Analysis

Adrienne Rich uses an observational, detached tone in “Diving into the Wreck” to write a detailed poem that focuses on humanity; storytellers as observers, recorders, and explorers; and the isolation of life; as well as the shared community found through the experience of story, through the mythical inner journey of the writer who makes such things possible.

From the beginning, the speaker is in a unique position of being alone and yet connected to others. “I am having to do this/not like Cousteau with his/assiduous team/aboard the sun-flooded schooner/but here alone.” Notice that the most stand-out image in this piece is of the ‘sun-flooded schooner’, which though it is contrasted to the speaker’s own journey and not used to describe it, still sticks in the mind’s image of the setting. Tonally, it’s a statement with no overt emotion attached to it, as will persist throughout the rest of the poem except arguably in the very last paragraphs, near its climax. The feelings present in the beginning of the poem are less intense than they will become later, though at no point will the speaker ever reveal these feelings explicitly.

“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.” Here the speaker brings the reader into the poem for the first time by use of the word ‘we’, she is still alone, and yet not exactly alone, because she is following where others have gone before, a passage that has been experienced and documented by others, and which she now feels she must take herself. She is not talking of the physical ladder; here it represents a journey, or doorway. An invitation. Taking the invitation, prepared physically and mentally as much as it is possible to be, she goes down alone, for though connected to the others that have taken this journey before her, she must travel it by herself. “There is no one/to tell me when the ocean/will begin.”

It is a mythic story that she is now embarking on. Again, there is the reminder that she is alone, “I have to learn alone/to turn my body without force/in the deep element” Once under the water “it is easy to forget/what I came for … 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.” Story, maps, words… to tell the story, to experience the story, she has to dive into the wreck. She cannot see from the boat above the surface of the waves what the wreck is, but must rely on her book of myths. Because she rejects those myths, or more precisely seeks to go beyond them, further than they allow, she comes into the water, taking her own journey to find “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” a journey that is indeed “another story … not a question of power.”

It is only in finding the wreck that she comes into deeper contact with those others who have taken the journey, as shown by the changing narration in the poem from I to we. Suddenly she is no longer alone. Interestingly, this is also where the strict reality and calm emotions that characterized the first section of the poem are supplanted by a more mythical, symbolic reality and emotionally-charged atmosphere. First the speaker is joined by others and then, in effect, becomes the wreck itself. For there is no understanding the wreck without becoming it, if only for a moment. “The androgyny of the diver suggests not an original unity but the common bond of incompleteness, loss, and disrepair shared by all selves” (Templeton). In shared loneliness, all those who have made the journey come together, and through the telling of the poem, the speaker gives the reader some of that gift, that understanding. Those on the journey have not lost themselves; this is in no way a journey of loss but of discovery, and healing. They are still explorers, still writers, still storytellers, “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.”

In the end, through the use of a detached tone that never lands her too solidly on one side or the other, Adrienne Rich communicates detailed images of isolation and community that cause us to think deeply. The writer is ultimately a figure that bridges both sides of human existence.

Photo by Wakataitea, Creative Commons, via Flick. Poem analysis by Sara Barkat.

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  1. says

    All kinds of WOW in both the poem and the analysis.

    I like: maritime floss & threadbare beauty & haunting (instead of hunting, which I figured it to be until I slowed down in my reading).

    Miss Sara B. – your keen
    eye of the I
    to the We
    amazes simpleton
    poetry eaters like
    who gobble
    depths, ever so
    slight, only to
    get it
    on the re-read




  1. […] Diving into the Wreck, perhaps her most well-known work, was written amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the civil rights and feminist movements and dramatic upheaval in her personal life. The woman W.S. Merwin said was “in love with the hope of telling utter truth” seemed to believe that not to speak was to do more than to silence, it was to extinguish: […]

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