Diving into the Wreck

by Adrienne Rich
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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

"Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich depicts a woman diving under the ocean to find women in a wreck. Symbolically, it's the story of Rich diving into the history of women and the injustices and damage done to them in the past. It's about women creating new stories for themselves by learning from the past—especially the part of the past that's hidden from view.

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The speaker explains how she has prepared for the dive at the beginning of the poem. She reads a book of myths, prepares a camera, and brings a knife. This means that she needs to understand the history of what she'll find, that she wants to bring back memories or proof of what's there, and that there's a possibility that she'll need to protect herself or fight through barriers. She calls her diving suit "body-armor" and reminds the reader that she, unlike famous diver Jacques Cousteau, is "alone" in her dive.

She uses the ladder to climb into the water and stays in the air despite going lower and lower. She says there's no one to let her know when the ocean starts. She's stuck between her preparations and the place she needs to get to. She does eventually get there, though she says she is blacking out. Her mask, which she put on as part of her preparations, helps keep her alive.

Once she's in the water, she says it's easy to forget her purpose. There's so much there; she talks of those who have always lived there and how they intimidate her. She has to fight against feeling like a trespasser.

She moves closer to what she came for, which she says is "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." In the context of diving for the history of harm done to women, she's looking for the actual effects of it that last into the present day. She's not looking for the stories we tell ourselves about the past.

Once she finds what she is looking for, she sees the damage that has been done. She compares women to water-damaged navigation logs and broken compasses. She says that she and the reader—others—find their way to this again and again. They bring the same things—a book, a knife, and a camera—but their names, like her name, don't appear in the book of myths. The book tells the story of both society and those, like the author, who have broken out of that society. They can be something different and something better.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1497

In 1974, Adrienne Rich received the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck. In a statement written with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who also were nominated, she rejected the award as an individual but accepted it on behalf of women, dedicating the occasion “to the struggle for self-determination of all women.” This vision of herself as writing for and in the presence of women has guided her work. Feminism provides Rich with the framework for her vision of transformation for herself and for other women.

Her seventh book of poetry, the collection is, in part, a clarification of her identity as a member of the women’s movement of the previous decade. Receiving critical acclaim from the onset of her career, including being chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first collection, A Change of World (1951), Rich has sought a position in the male-dominated literary world. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s she became politically active in antiwar protests and the feminist movement. Rich saw her poetic power and political ideology merge, creating a powerful poetic vision that informs Diving into the Wreck. Rich, one of America’s foremost poets, has explored, analyzed, and depicted her own physical, psychic, and intellectual rebirth in her prose and poetry. Although her later works, including her prose text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and her poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language (1978), dramatize the theme of rebirth in detail, the initial exploration of this theme takes place in the collection Diving into the Wreck. In this work, the poet embraces an individual and a collective consciousness that provides for her transformation.

Rich identifies the world of the fathers as an oppressive patriarchal one that restricts a woman’s existence in every way, psychologically and physically, individually and collectively. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, she asserts that “the kingdom of the fathers” denies women their power, permeating every institution and experience, determining and defining women and their roles politically and socially. Further, she concedes that patriarchal assumptions have shaped both women’s moral and intellectual history. For women to move from being powerless to powerful, they must confront their past and redefine themselves in the present and for the future. The central theme of a woman’s coming to consciousness synthesizes the collection. Divided into four sections, the work follows the process of awakening. First, there is the discovery, then the anger, then the courage to survive, and then to seek change. Rich finds her poetic voice in this book, and with that voice the power to define a collective consciousness for all women. As Rich explains in On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (1979), the poet must speak for those who “are less conscious of what they are living through.” The poetry depicts the struggle of awakening. Poems such as “When We Dead Awaken” (1971) and “Waking in the Dark” (1971) indicate this theme. In each poem, the speaker describes the effort of trying to make sense of a world that, upon waking, appears so different:

working like me to pick apartworking with me to remakethis trailing knitted thing, this cloth of darknessthis woman’s garment, trying to save the skein.

The poet describes the struggle to survive in a world in which she is the stranger. Her existence is questioned because the “dead language” does not describe the altered state that she has upon waking. Although the speaker knows she is awake,“yet never have we been closer to the truth,” the doubt and disbelief still linger and only “the words,” such as those written in “your diaries,” are what keep her sane. In the poem “Waking in the Dark,” the speaker characterizes the waking as almost unnatural. She sees herself as being the only one who is awake in an “unconscious forest.”

The process of awakening brings anger, as illustrated in the poems “From the Prison House” (1971) and “The Phenomenology of Anger” (1972). In the first poem, the speaker paints “the world of pain” as being imminent even when she sleeps. For her, the vision “must be unblurred” and clear for her to describe in detail a better place. The poet is the one who must remember every detail, to forget nothing about the world of violence and pain that has held her prisoner. In her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision” (1971), Rich describes women as “sleepwalkers” who in coming awake find that they are not alone. Essentially, she envisions that in the awakening, each woman forms a “collective reality” that is critical for her survival. This concept is emphasized in both poems. Further, the persona in “The Phenomenology of Anger” reiterates Rich’s view that victimization and anger are real experiences for women. In one stanza the speaker muses that the world is no longer viable as she rejects the “fantasies of murder” and resolves to hate so as to rid herself of the lies of a world that she has decided to reject. Her hate turns into fire as she ritualistically burns up the old life, cleansing herself for the new one in which she is powerful.

The process of awakening is painful and lonely. The speaker of “Merced” (1972) describes herself as crying “without knowing which thought/ forced water to my eyes.” In “Song” (1971) the loneliness is defined as being the first one awake “in a house wrapped in sleep.” The loneliness is necessary, however, to find one’s personal strength and truth. The speaker relates that if she is lonely it is like the loneliness of one taking the first breath of a new dawn. The tone of hope, not despair, however, characterizes the process, for it is one that will produce a clearer vision of the self.

“Diving into the Wreck” (1972) is the centerpiece of the collection. “The wreck” is the history of women. Rich begins to comprehend the damage that has been done to all women by the “book of myths.” In the first stanza, she readies herself by loading the camera, checking her knife, putting on her rubber suit and “the awkward mask.” All of these symbolize that she must be prepared for what she may find and must remain in control. In this stage of reawakening, she has gone beyond her individual consciousness into the “hold” where other women sleep “with drowned face” and “open eyes.” She clarifies her reason for the exploration:

I came to explore the wreck.The words are purposesThe words are maps.I came to see the damage that was doneand the treasures that prevail.

Her tone is somber and decisive. She knows that without words, she is without meaning, yet she must go underwater, where words cannot be spoken, to gain understanding. As she circles the wreck, she becomes an androgyne, “I am she; I am he.” She dives into the hold of the wreck. There she discovers the half-destroyed instruments; they represent the state of the history of women. Although they have been left to rot, there is hope because they are only half destroyed. The hope lies not in the book of myths “in which our names do not appear” but in the instrument of the poet who, “by cowardice or courage,” finds her and women’s way back to the surface. In the final stanza, she enacts the final step: moving from the individual’s awakening to the collective state of consciousness: “We are, I am, you are.”

To classify Diving into the Wreck as merely a collection of political poetry would be a mistake. It is poetry because of its feminism. Rich’s feminism is a natural extension of her poetry; for Rich, feminism is about empathy. Rich describes conflicts on the individual and the collective levels; she discovers the living connection between the political and the personal. Her poetry chronicles an individual’s transformation into a strong, artistic, powerful voice, one that attempts to articulate her own change as it mirrors the collective reality of her time.

The poet creates a powerful language capable of describing this new vision. Rich accomplishes this in Diving into the Wreck. The poetry in this collection heralds that of her later collections, including The Dream of a Common Language (1978), in which she gives birth to “a whole new poetry.” To have arrived at such a point in the artist’s journey, Rich had to be the explorer of the past, as she is in the poem “Diving into the Wreck.” To acquire this expertise, this vital knowledge, it is necessary to “re-vision,” a process she defines in an essay as that of looking back and reperceiving an old text from a new perspective. The poet revises the past history of women, the one written by men, and then guides the reader back to the present with a clearer view of both the past and the present. Rich has a transformative power and exhibits it in Diving into the Wreck.

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