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On "Diving into the Wreck"


Rachel Blau DuPlessis

In this poem of journey and transformation Rich is tapping the energies and plots of myth, while re-envisioning the content. While there is a hero, a quest, and a buried treasure, the hero is a woman; the quest is a critique of old myths; the treasure is knowledge: the whole buried knowledge of the personal and cultural foundering of the relations between the sexes, and a self-knowledge that can be won only through the act of criticism.


Ruth Whitman

I believe that "Diving into the Wreck" is one of the great poems of our time. It is a poem of disaster, with a willingness to look into it deeply and steadily, to learn whatever dreadful information it contains, to accept it, to be part of it, not as victim, but as survivor.

From Harvard Magazine (1975)


Cheryl Walker

In the title poem, "Diving into the Wreck," surely one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women's movement, the explorer--simultaneously male and female--achieves something close to a mythic density. The figure is passionate but with an isolation and passion transparent to the universal. The poem is utterly personal but there is nothing in it which draws away into private life.

From The Nation (1973)


Deborah Pope

The wreck represents the battered hulk of the sexual definitions of the past, which Rich, as an underwater explorer, must search for evidence of what can be salvaged. Only those who have managed to survive the wreck--women isolated from any meaningful participation or voice in forces that led to the disaster--are in a position to write its epitaph and their own names in new books.

From A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women’s Poetry. Copyright 1984 by Louisiana State University Press.


Erica Jong

In "Diving into the Wreck," the title poem, it is the androgyne who dives into the wreck to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail. . . .

This stranger-poet-survivor carries "a book of myths" in which her/his "names do not appear." These are the old myths of patriarchy, the myths that split male and female irreconcilably into two warring factions, the myths that perpetuate the battle between the sexes. Implicit in Rich's image of the androgyne is the idea that we must write new myths, create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm but heal it. Rich's visionary androgyne reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that the great artist must be mentally bisexual. But Rich takes this idea even further: it is not only the artist who must make the emphatic leap beyond gender, but any of us who would try to save the world from destruction.

From Ms. (1973)


Margaret Atwood

The wreck she is diving into, in the very strong title poem, is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women. She is journeying to something that is already in the past, in order to discover for herself the reality behind the myth, "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." What she finds is part treasure and part corpse, and she also finds that she herself is part of it, a "half-destroyed instrument." As explorer she is detached; she carries a knife to cut her way in, cut structures apart; a camera to record; and the book of myths itself, a book which has hitherto had no place for explorers like herself.

This quest--the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the "I" and the "You," the He and the She, or more generally (in the references to wars and persecutions of various kinds) about the powerless and the powerful--is presented throughout the book through a sharp, clear style and through metaphors which become their own myths. At their most successful the poems move like dreams, simultaneously revealing and alluding, disguising and concealing. The truth, it seems, is not just what you find when you open a door: it is itself a door, which the poet is always on the verge of going through.

From The New York Times Book Review (1973).


Judith McDaniel

"Diving into the Wreck" is Rich's most complex use of an image of rebirth. This time her tools are carefully chosen: she has "read the book of myths, / and loaded the camera, / and checked the edge of the knife-blade." It is necessary to know the old stories before embarking on a journey to change them. This journey is to record the sources of our origin, hence the camera. The knife is less obvious, until one remembers Rich's frequent earlier warnings--that the journey is dangerous. As the narrator descends, the water turns from blue to green to black, There is the effect of "blacking out," becoming unconscious, while still remaining in control. As she begins to move in this new element, the swimmer learns that "the sea is not a question ofpower." It is, rather, the all encompassing "deep clement" in which she must learn "to turn my body without force." She has come "to explore the wreck. . ./ the see the damage that was done/ and the treasures that prevail." The wreck is a layered image: it is the life of one woman, the source of successes and failures; it is the history of all women submerged in a patriarchal culture; it is that source of myths about male and female sexuality which shape our lives and roles today. Whichever, the swimmer came for "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." She explores the wreck and records for us her experiences of the cargo, "the half-destroyed instruments ... the water-eaten log/the fouled compass." But no questions are answered here for those who have not found their own way to this place; we are given no explanation for why the wreck occurred. Nor is there any account of the swimmer's return, the use to which she puts this new information. It is as if Rich still found herself in the dilemma at the end of "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" when it seemed impossible to record an image of the "new woman." Indeed, she said in 1974, two years after "Diving into the Wreck,"

I absolutely cannot imagine what it would be like to be a woman in a non-patriarchal society. At moments I have this little glimmer of it. When I'm in a group of women, where I have a sense of real energy flowing and of power in the best sense--not power of domination, but just access to sources--I have some sense of what that could be like. But it's very rare that I can imagine even that.

From Reconstituting the World. (Spinsters, Ink: 1978).


Nancy Milford

Darkness and water. In Diving into the Wreck she enters more deeply than ever before into female fantasy; and these are primal waters, life-giving and secretive in the special sense of not being wholly revealed. The female element. A diver may dive to plunder or to explore.

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.

Alone and crippled by her equipment, she is descending, she is "having to do this," "and there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin." And even though the mask of the diver is powerful the point of the dive is not the exercise of power in self-defense.

the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element

She came "to explore the wreck." And what is the wreckage; is it of marriage, or of sex, or of the selfhood within each? Is it the female body, her own?

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

Moving in deeply private images, circling darkly and richly into the very sources of her poetry, she is, as she says, "coming-home to. . .sex, sexuality, sexual wounds, sexual identity, sexual politics":

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.

Dreaming of the person within the poem: she walking toward me, naked, swaying, bending down, her dark long hair falling forward of its own weight like heavy cloth shielding my face and her own, her full breasts brushing my cheek, moving toward my mouth. The dream is the invention of the dreamer, and the content of the dream moves in symbols of sustenance and of comfort. The hands of that diving woman become our own hands, reaching out, touching, holding; not in sex but in deliverance. That is the potency of her poetry: it infuses dreams, it makes possible connections between people in the face of what seems to be irrevocable separateness, it forges an alliance between the poet and the reader. The power of her woman's voice crying out, I am: surviving, sustaining, continuing, and making whole

we move together like underwater plants

Over and over, starting to wake
I dive back to discover you
still whispering, touch me, we go on
streaming through the slow
citylight forest ocean
stirring our body hair

But this is the saying of a dream
on waking
I wish there were somewhere
actual we could stand
handing the power-glasses back and forth
looking at the earth, the wildwood
where the split began

("Waking in the Dark")

Copyright 1975 by Nancy Milford, from Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, eds. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry (W.W. Norton and Company, 1975).


Cary Nelson

Her better poems always exact a certain price from anyone willing to participate in their vision. The kind of political awareness she advocates may cost a loss of personal freedom. The voyage into new territory may require us to adopt a generalized, mythic identity. The reader who accepts her vision uncritically has probably repressed the real anxieties accompanying self- recognition and personal change. The enthusiasm for her efforts to create a myth of androgynous sexuality is a typical case. To applaud the androgynous psyche or to announce this as its historical moment is easier than actually living out its consequences: "I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams back, the merman in his armored body ... I am she: I am he." We all have more varied sexual impulses than we can act on, but will Rich's romanticized androgynous figure, "whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes," help bring them any closer to realization? While that is not a criterion one would ordinarily apply to all poetry, it is relevant in Rich's case. Unlike Roethke, she cannot take pleasure in the powerlessness of poetic solutions to social and historical conflicts. Her poetry continually testifies to her need to work out possible modes of human existence verbally, to achieve imaginatively what cannot yet be achieved in actual relationships. Moreover, she hopes that poetry can transform human interaction. Yet perhaps that is not, after all, the point, at least in poems like "Diving into the Wreck," despite its call for "the thing itself and not the myth." For what we have here is the myth, as Rich herself has now implicitly acknowledged: "There are words I cannot choose again: humanism androgyny" (DCL, 66). "Such words," she goes on to say, "have no shame in them." They do not embody the history of anguish, repression, and self-control that precedes them. "Their glint is too shallow" (DCL, 66); they do not describe either the past or the life of the present. As Rich has recently written of bisexuality, "Such a notion blurs and sentimentalizes the actualities within which women have experienced sexuality; it is the old liberal leap across the tasks and struggles of here and now." Indeed "Diving into the Wreck" demonstrates that one can suppress difficult feelings by mythologizing them. It may be that both Rich and her readers are relieved to have their fear and their desire conjoined in symbols so stylized and abstract.

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press.


Alice Templeton

"Diving into the Wreck" presents a less privatized, more mythologized version of the theme in "Waking in the Dark." Rich again creates a setting that merges the ruinous state of modern civilization with the damaged sexuality of the self. The poet begins the exploration alone, but she suggests that others have risked such journeys toward clarification. In a passage that Rich and most readers now find problematic, the solitary explorer modulates into an androgyne as she approaches the wreck: "the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body / ... I am she: I am he...." Speaking, feeling, and seeing for both sexes, the poet wants to witness "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." Margaret Atwood notes that the wreck is "beyond salvation though not beyond understanding" (239), but the poem actually offers very little analysis of the wreck and quite a bit of explanation of how the wreck is approached, how the inquiry is carried out, and how the explorer understands the mission and her/himself. Other than describing the wreck of the self and of culture as "the drowned face" and "the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course / the water-eaten log / the fouled compass," the poem focuses on the process and attitude of the explorer. Even the motive is vague and not necessarily pure:

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" offers a metaphor for the crisis and necessity that could only be called a detached "it" in "Trying to Talk with a Man": "Coming out here we are up against it" (my emphasis). Yet as Cary Nelson has noted, "Diving into the Wreck" is hardly a concrete or thoroughly grounded poem since the androgyny it supplies oversimplifies sexuality and is itself a myth (156).

For Nelson, the poem "demonstrates that one can suppress difficult feelings by mythologizing them" in "stylized and abstract" ways (156); however, the poem's attention to the process of exploring the wreck and not to the analysis of the wreck is significant for both Rich's feminist theory and her poetic practice. The poem has cleared ground, and unlike "When We Dead Awaken," it stops before it reconstructs anything, satisfied with creating a new signifying space rather than overly desperate to fill it. In fact, the ending returns us to the beginning of the poem and prepares for another exploration by again mentioning the knife, the camera, and the book. As Werner says, the poem continually makes ready "for the descent which we are, then and now and perpetually, just beginning" (175). In its mythologized, abstract way, "Diving into the Wreck" conveys the dialectic between the epic feminist vision and the lyric feminist vision, as the diver and the wreck of culture coincide in the image of the "drowned face." While the modulation of the lyric "I" into the androgynous "we" presents problems, the strategy allows Rich to avoid the potential egotism of realistic self-dramatization and to expose the myth that the absence of "our names" signifies we are somehow unafflicted by the reductive sexual ideologies that prevail. Like many others in the volume, this poem raises the question of origin, of "where the split began" ("Waking in the Dark"): the poem privileges neither an external nor an internal site as the source of bifurcation, and it avoids hypostatizing a lost unity. Even the androgyny of the diver suggests not an original unity but the common bond of incompleteness, loss, and disrepair shared by all selves.

From The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Copyright 1994 by the University of Tennessee Press.


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