Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
The Poem | The Poet | Adventure Story | Poem Analysis | QnA
“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
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
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
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
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
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”
~ by Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Cecile Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012) was an American poet, essayist, and feminist. She was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”, and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” Rich criticized rigid forms of feminist identities and valorized what she coined the “lesbian continuum”; which is a female continuum of solidarity and creativity which has impacted and even filled women’s lives.
Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by renowned poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Auden went on to write the introduction to the published volume. She famously declined the National Medal of Arts, protesting the vote by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
To read more about Adrienne Rich, click here.
A few years back, I heard Leonardo DiCaprio talk about his sky-diving experience at The Ellen Show. He talked about the “chutes not opening” at the first attempt, and him “plummeting towards the planet earth” with the “8×10 glossies of your whole life flashing before your eyes”. A lot of my friends have described their adventure-sport experiences as the “most surreal” experience in their life. And I never really understood them. But I knew exactly how Leo felt when I first heard this interview. I feel exactly the same for all these adventure sports. Its like, I have ‘been there – done that – not a fan’.
It’s not that I always had this opinion about adventure sports. I had grown up watching the discovery channel and national geographic channel. I always grew up with the curiosity to see the real beauty of nature. Neither did I have a near-fatal experience during any of these adventure sport. They were fairly smooth. And the views from up-there or deep inside there were also beautiful. It was always a dream to be there and do it. But when I was there, I felt like I did not belong there.
When I finally returned from that trip in the state of an enigma. I told my grandfather about how something that I always dreamed about failed to make me happy. And then he gave me those golden words of wisdom. He said, “All the way you were seeking happiness in something you haven’t seen. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with it. But it is time for you to understand happiness does not come to those who seek it. Happiness belongs to those who know it. And you travel the world you will get lost. But if you take a trip inside yourself, you will find the world.” Those words were really heavy. It’s been years, but I am still trying to digest them. Though I totally agree with him.
‘Diving into wreck’ is a poem that talks about the whole diving experience of a sea diver straight from the preparation stage until when he reaches the bottom of the sea to find a wreck. This poem talks about the whole emotional journey of the diver.
Adrienne Rich talks about how the experience is different from hearing or reading the stories about it in the “book of myths”. The main reason according to her is that in the stories they are doing plain fact-description and the human experiences are mostly silenced there.
The irony is that while reading this poem too, we can say that in a way, we are only reading a “book of myths”. But as you read the whole poem the use of imagery by the poet gives you real deep insights into these strange worlds. It gives you an insight into both the human experience and that of the soul of the diver.
Here’s a brief description of what Adrienne Rich talks about in each stanza of the poem.
In this stanza, Adrienne Rich talks about the preparation stage where you gather the material and suit-up. According to Rich, this is not even a percent as glorious as it is glamorized. You don’t have a team like Cousteau, you have to do it alone.
Through the second stanza, she points at the beginning of her journey into the other world. The ladder discussed here is the medium. Here she begins to emphasize the difference between the two worlds, the one above water and the other one inside it.
She finally uses the ladder to go down and begin her journey. She is moving out of the air which was the place she belongs to. There is no air inside water, and she must depend on her awkward equipment. They cripple her.
As she goes deeper it turns blue, then green and finally black when she starts blacking out. Though she has her aides (her mask) which is powerful enough. But it’s not the question of power, it’s about learning to adapt alone.
In this paragraph, she begins to feel at home along with the other creatures of the sea. She has started to adapt to the new world.
In this stanza, Adrienne Rich finally talks about her purpose of coming here, i.e. to “explore the wreck” and for the same, she starts striking the “beam of her lamp”. She also talks about how being there is different from the stories of being there. Those stories are just words, and words are mere “purposes” or “maps”.
In this stanza Rich beautifully describes her horrific experience of diving into the wreck of disaster. All it tells is the story of the tragedy that happened. Be it the drowned face that is facing upwards, or the wreck of the ship worn away due to the force of the sea, or the ribs lying somewhere. Their terrifying stories are echoing all around.
This is an interesting stanza. It talks about her becoming one with the other creatures who have been doing rounds there. She is the mermaid, she is the merman. She is all of them who encircle silently listening to the silence echoed by the horrors of the wreck.
Here she talks about the items of value that lie there, like gold, silver, copper, and vermeil. There are things of historical values. Yet the circumstances make them so valueless.
This last stanza is as if the whole story was running in the flashback and now, we are in the present day. We carry the same knife, the camera, and the book of myths with which we began. “The book of myths” that do not carry our name because it does not record the human experience. It only records the facts.
Who is Cousteau?
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, (11 June 1910 – 25 June 1997) was a French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water. He co-developed the Aqua-Lung, pioneered marine conservation, and was a member of the Académie française.
Cousteau described his underwater world research in a series of books, perhaps the most successful being his first book, The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure, published in 1953. Cousteau also directed films, most notably the documentary adaptation of the book, The Silent World, which won a Palme d’or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. He remained the only person to win a Palme d’Or for a documentary film until Michael Moore won the award in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11.
To read more about Jacques Cousteau, click here.
What does ‘crenellated fans’ mean?
Crenellated is a pattern along the top of a parapet (fortified wall), most often in the form of multiple, regular, rectangular spaces in the top of the wall, through which arrows or other weaponry may be shot, especially as used in medieval European architecture.
Fans could be any sea creatures or fins of the fishes waving around.