Sunday, May 30, 2010

Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich

Introduction and Main Theme
Diving into the Wreck is Adrienne Rich’s most celebrated poem. It is unanimously called epic of our modern times. The poet gives a description of the sea and her dive into the sea, the various things observed and particular experiences underwent are all beautifully narrated and described. The poem is also adventurous because it I based on the search for a wreck.

Here Diving into the Wreck is not a simple adventure story, but Rich has a very serious account to relate. On the onset, it is a story of a diver going into the water to observe a wreck, but as the seawater is deep and mysterious so are the meanings of the poem. Basically the poem is the struggle for women rights in the male-dominated society. The poem is representative of not only Rich’s ideals, but also the changing conditions of American at the time when the poem was written.
Rich becomes androgyny[1] and wants to observe the damage that was done to the female race and the treasures that prevail in their rights. Her struggle for the voice of rights is single-handed.

[1]. Androgyny: medical term that shows characteristics of both sexes – male and female. Rich becomes Androgynous: again a medical term relating to or exhibiting both female and male sex organs but with a predominantly female appearance.

A Critique of Diving into the Wreck
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

The image of the sea is a metaphor of life as sea is full of wreckages; the world too is full of ruins. One glance around will bring back countless pictures of destruction. Diving into the Wreck provides the angle of perception about the wreck from both the male and the female side. It is androgyny that investigates the wreck, not female or male alone. The poem is hailed as an epic of the modern times. It statement is fully justified by the technical merits of the poem and the subject matter.

Development of Thought
Quest for Fact or Myth
According to 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.

Depth of the Poem
According to Nancy Milford, 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
The meaning of Wreck
Deborah Pope in finding the meaning of the wreck states, 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.
Rich’s Approach to the Wreck
"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.

Past and Present
The better poems of Adrienne Rich always exact a certain price from anyone willing to participate in their vision. This is also true in the case of Diving into the Wreck. 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”. “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”; 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.


Words are purposes and maps. They are intentions we have toward each other, whether we are aware of those intentions or not; they are ways toward and away from each other. This is such a brilliant and beautiful poem, one of Rich's best. (The other great one for me is "Splitting.") There is deep sadness here, and a sense of being broken by a life that is much more powerful and vaster than our intentions had led us to believe when we thought we could set goals and reach them. So what can we do? Throw away the myths and seek what treasure remains in the devastation of our dreams. And the treasure is there, obscured, but there. The fact that the book of myths will remain, but our names will not appear in it is very hopeful.  Further, I believe that the poem 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. 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.

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