Collaborative Close Readings
A close reading of “Diving Into the Wreck,” by Adrienne Rich.
The two things that intrigue me most about this poem are: The shifting I, and the nature of the wreck. Somehow they intertwine in my mind, one being necessary to the other.
Things in our lives get wrecked: Cars, trains, careers, homes, marriages, relationships. Each disaster is new, unmapped. Unknown territory.
We may think we have a plan, an earthquake kit, an insurance folder in the glove compartment, a little extra put by in the bank. But in a real disaster, our hands shake and we can’t find the insurance card; we are washed up jobless on the shore without a plan; the earthquake kit is buried in the rubble and we can’t find our glasses. There is no map.
Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” explores unknown territory. “We know,” the speaker tells us, of the ladder, “what it is for.” Yet she describes the panic as the water closes over her and she learns to breathe differently.
She is alone, our speaker. She tells us repeatedly. There is no one to help her into her equipment, “and there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin.” She learns alone to move in the ocean, “to turn my body without force.”
But once in the depths, she is among many, the “tentative haunters.” I imagine schools of fish brushing by her, grey and silver, and the soft fingers of anemones.
Here the I of the poem begins to shift to we.
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
She has not only entered the ocean, descended to the wreck, into the realms of myth, but has become plural, both she and he, mermaid and merman, and not only those two, but also the drowned face staring up at the sun, carrying the weight of a ruined a precious cargo…becoming not only the explorer, but the wreck itself,
A side note: I find it interesting that though the cargo (now in half-rotten chests) is precious, it is not the incorruptible metal, gold. It is silver, copper, vermeil. Copper corrodes, silver tarnishes, and vermeil is gold plated over sterling silver: the image of incorruptibility, laid over a base of more perishable metal.
Back to the wreck: The speaker tells us she wants to see the thing itself.
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
This reminds me of William Carlos William’s Imagist insistence on the thing itself, the notion that the goal of the poet is to produce a clear and exact image, and that the meaning of the poem lies in that image, not in metaphor or poetic devices. Yet Rich is, without question using metaphor, speaking metaphorically, exploring metaphorically, connecting the diver, the mermaid, the merman, the ribs of the wreck, the richness that prevails. The poem speaks of using words as maps, using words to explore. There is metapoetry here, clearly, and metalanguage.
But I think the metaphor goes deeper than the poem being a poem about poetry. I think the wreck is the wreck of relationship, being explored delicately, with the speaker’s awareness that her self is more than oneself, that she takes in both mermaid and merman, both diver and drowned ship. In the deepest human relationships, whether marriage or lovers or parents and children, we become more than ourselves. We speak, with authority, of ourselves as we.
(Flashes of memory — my grandmother, draping a shawl over me because she felt chilly. My husband and I waking up with a scream from almost identical nightmares. My sister, telling me how she felt so connected to her baby that changing and washing him felt like taking care of her own body. Lying awake at night listening to myself and my newborn and my husband all breathing together — each with a different rhythm, but all three inhaling together once every minute or two.)
I. You. We. We find every wreck a new disaster, uncharted. Sometimes we spend the rest of our lives diving into them again and again, delicately inserting a knife-blade into the hasps of the treasure chests, bringing up bones and pearls, amphorae and manuscripts.
Sources: Wikimedia provided the scrap of Greek manuscript that is incorporated into my artwork. It is a fragment from a 3rd century copy of the Labors of Hercules. If you look closely, there are little illustrations of Hercules between the lines. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:P._Oxy._XXII_2331.jpg