This poem dramatizes the conflict between the fight for women’s empowerment and rights. Rich’s oeuvre is characterized by the extended metaphor at the heart of this poem. She speaks about the struggle for women’s empowerment by using the image of a woman training for a deep-sea scuba dive and discovering a shipwreck. In a broader sense, the poem functions as a call to adventure into the dangerous unknown, searching for reality.
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The poem covers various crucial themes, which create the overall meaning of the literature piece. In this poem, the event that occurs is exploration. Everything the speaker is doing, feeling, or saying, she is diving into the ocean to see what she can find. The poem implies that exploration may involve more than just looking at a boat:
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 (lines 1-7)
Judging from the excerpt, the protagonist is preparing to dive into the sea, which also may refer to as all people plunging into the depths of their pasts to discover who they are.
While this poem is about discovering, evolving, and feeling, it is also a story about how we encounter nature on a fundamental level. Throughout the poem, Rich shows a drastic transition, and by the end, the speaker is not just an individual but a reflection of all people who have ever encountered devastation.
The poem begins with a speaker’s preparations for the dive “into the wreck.” The speaker has “read the book of myths” (1) as part of his training, suggesting that the poem is unlikely to be about swimming. The book is one of the poem’s most important symbols. It is used to reflect historical information about women’s rights and society’s expectations about how women should act. She emphasizes the “edge of the knife-blade” (3) and then refers to the wetsuit as “body-armor” (5) as if the speaker is preparing for battling. In other words, each object contributes to the overall atmosphere of the occasion. The poem establishes a comparison between Jacques Cousteau’s happy, vibrant world and the speaker’s lonely world:
I am having to do
this not like Cousteau
with his assiduous team aboard
the sun-flooded schooner but here alone (8-12).
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She is on her own as a woman doing something that women aren’t usually supposed to do.
The second stanza starts with the phrase, “There is a ladder” (13). Perhaps the hero a little nervous when she considers the ladder and who will be using it. This section stresses the distinction between air and water, so the ladder is essential in this poem. It’s what enables you to pass from one world to another, from air to sea. “I go down” (22), begins the third stanza in the same way as the second. The poet employs repetition to reinforce the speaker’s sense of time passing as she descends. In “the clear atoms of our human breath” (26-27), we can sense a sense of security and normalcy. Our speaker wants to highlight how we are reliant on the air. “There is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin,” (32-33) the speaker says again, stressing isolation.
The protagonist is in the water in the fourth stanza of Diving into the Wreck. The “air” (34) around her, which refers to the water, is “blue” (34) at first, then turns “green”(35) and then “black” (36). She initially believes she is blacking out, but it is simply the start of a modern world, where she can see firsthand women’s history in all of its horror and beauty. She must adjust to a new environment: “I must learn alone/ to transform my body without force/ in the deep aspect” (41-43). This is all about the terrifying, painful process of transformation, of changing one’s way of being to another’s way of being.
The speaker explains in stanza five, one of the poem’s shorter stanzas, that once she is underwater, “it is easy to forget” (44) the intent of her mission. “I came to explore the wreck./ The words are purposes” (52-53), she clarifies in stanza six. She arrives at the shipwreck at the end of this stanza, which she was searching for. The protagonist explains her movements around the ship with terms like “stroke” and “flank.” The narrator addresses using a flashlight to illuminate the wreck and searching its “flank” for “something more permanent/ than fish or weed” (59-60).
Between the end of the sixth stanza and the beginning of the seventh,
there is a clear example of enjambment
the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck,
the thing itself and not the myth (61-63).
The “thing”(61) for which the speaker has come is the “thing itself” (63) rather than the myth. The person is searching for something authentic, something concrete, not a story written by men. When the speaker refers to the “ribs of the tragedy” (68), she is describing a silent underwater sight, but also a tragic scene, a spot where people have died. While the “tentative haunters” (70) might be fish swimming in the wreck, we can’t help but imagine the spirits of those who drowned haunting the ship.
The speaker describes herself as a man and a woman in the eighth stanza: “And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair streams black, the merman in his armored body” (72-73). “We cycle silently” (74) as a male and female team. The poet often alludes to her interest in queer culture, another world that has been erased, in this stanza. She’s also checking the limits of what is and isn’t gender. This is apparent in the last line of this stanza, with the sentence “I am she: I am he” (77). The figures and the speaker are “half-wedged and left to rot” (82), she stresses. Women and future queer figures like the merman, she says, have been overlooked by history and left to rot. When the eighth stanza adds on to the first line of the next one, saying: “I am she: I am he/ whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes” (77-78), The speaker not only becomes androgynous, but she has also merged with the ship’s dead men and women.
The speaker of Diving into the Wreck shifts away from the metaphorical ship in the final stanza and defines the scene narrowly. She reaffirms the poem’s core themes, writing that “we” (83) has returned to the shipwreck with “a book of myths/ in which our names do not appear” (92-93). Despite having been removed from history, they are now retracing their steps and making sense of the brutality they have endured as well as the rich history they have produced. She addresses everyone with the second and third-person pronouns, “you” (86) and “we”(86). Everyone is “the one” (88) who returns “to this scene” (89) with the camera and the boo of myths. While some aspects of the experience were depressing, others were enlightening. It was the trip she had been looking for.
Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich is a fundamental poem in the history of feministic literature, substantiated by the National Book Award in 1974. Written at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, this poem may be considered one the most explicitly feminist pieces, directly exploring the themes of queer. The leitmotifs of Diving into the Wreck suggest how Rich negotiated creative writing in mid-twentieth-century America when the literary culture was far more male-dominated compared to today. She discusses what it means to be a man or a woman, how we contribute to history, and how it feels to be alone, which are crucial topics many young people, me included, can relate to. Such imagery transforms the poem into an emotional experience rather than a simple plot, making the poem a critical part of the literary world.
Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.