The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Diving into the Wreck” is a poem of ten stanzas in free verse. The poem is written in the first person. Sometimes poets use the first-person device to create a character who may have different values or beliefs from the author. In this case, however, no distinction between speaker and poet is suggested. The first-person voice allows the poet to address the reader directly, as if recounting her own experience.

The poem narrates the speaker’s quest as she explores a sunken ship to discover the cause of the disaster and to salvage whatever treasures remain. The sea is a traditional literary symbol of the unconscious. To dive is to probe beneath the surface for hidden meanings, to learn about one’s submerged desires and emotions. In this poem, the diver is exploring a wreck—a ship that has failed.

Preparing to dive, she reads the “book of myths” for guidance, but she must leave the book behind in order to gain direct knowledge without the intermediaries of history and language:

the thing I came for:the wreck and not the story of the wreckthe thing itself and not the myth.

She is alone in her journey. Unlike the French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau with his many helpers, she must be alone, for the scientist may work with a team, but the quest requires isolation.

The poem is the story of a descent into the ocean to discover important knowledge of the past, to examine a wreck and to salvage the cargo. The poet describes the tools that are needed for the dive and the diver’s transformation as she descends. By the time she reaches the wreck, she has become a new kind of creature, a “she/he.” As the diver learns, the myth that was the starting point of her journey is incomplete and inadequate: It does not tell her story. She must, therefore, return to tell her own tale.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is an extended metaphor in which the dive comes to signify the diver’s quest for knowledge and power. Her descent into the primal depths of the sea of life, of consciousness, transforms her: She becomes a creature of a different world. Her discussion of the equipment she uses suggests her transformation. The “awkward mask” and crippling flippers are inappropriate for the land-based world but essential for the underwater journey. Human when she starts, she becomes “like an insect” as she crawls down the ladder. It is as if she is reversing the process of evolution as she reenters the ocean, the original source of life on earth. Once underwater, she notes that “you breathe differently down here.” When she reaches the drowned vessel, she learns her true identity; she is both mermaid and merman, man and woman. There is a ritualistic quality to this stanza, as the speaker remarks, “We circle silently/ about the wreck.” No longer the single diver, she has become a “we,” both male and female: “I am she: I am he.” She apparently has become the drowned vessel as well, the boat and its figurehead:

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyeswhose breasts still bear the stresswhose silver, copper, vermeil cargo liesobscurely inside barrels.

By delving into the mystery, looking beneath the surface, the diver learns the secret of her own submerged power. She/he is thus restored to a complete, multifaceted identity. The diver is not only the boat and its cargo, a figurehead, an observer, an explorer. She/he is also a participant in the disaster: “we are the half-destroyed instruments/ that once held to a course.” The implicit question is, can the diver carry out a salvage operation? Can the treasures she finds, “the silver, copper, vermeil cargo” be saved? The poem does not answer the question, but ends as the diver recapitulates the story of her arrival at this point, explaining how she/he found her way here carrying a book of myths “in which/ our names do not appear.”

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York subway

*New York subway. “The Phenomenology of Anger” describes the subway of New York City moving toward Brooklyn. The journey through the speaker’s anger takes place against the city landscape, while “walking on Broadway,” or while riding the subway. The dreamlike state depicted in the poem dramatizes the female psyche that Rich is determined to awaken.

*Southern Ohio

*Southern Ohio. In “When We Dead Awaken,” the phrase “lovely landscape of southern Ohio” is juxtaposed against the devastation left by strip mining, which the region has had to endure. The mining process is used as a metaphor for the stripping away of female power. Moreover, the area becomes a place of betrayal.

Wrecked ship

Wrecked ship. Ruins of a wrecked ship at the bottom of the sea are explored in “Diving into the Wreck,” the title poem of the collection. Although it is not named, the Atlantic Ocean is probably the sea that houses the wreck that the speaker of the poem explores. The wreck and the sea are not named because they must be inclusive, not exclusive. The primary symbol of the poem, representing unrecovered female history, seeks to identify with all its readers, as the final stanza reinforces: “We are, I am, you are/ . . . a book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.”


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Flynn, Gale. “The Radicalization of Adrienne Rich.” Hollins Critic 11 (1974): 1-15. Describes the complex evolution of a poet through her poetry, including Diving into the Wreck. Examines her political ideology and its impact on her works.

Jong, Erica. “Visionary Anger.” Ms. 2, no. 1 (July, 1973): 30-34. Thoughtfully examines Diving into the Wreck in the context of Rich’s philosophy and past work. Assesses her impact on feminist thought.

Rich, Adrienne. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry: Texts of the Poems: The Poet on Her Work: Reviews and Criticism. Edited by Barbara Charesworth Gelphi and Albert Gelphi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. A thoughtful study of the author’s work.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Analyzes motherhood as an institution and as a personal experience, using sociological theory and history to examine the significance of motherhood.

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Presents a detailed account of her intellectual rebirth through her prose. Identifies the literary works and figures who have influenced her.