Poetry Friday: 'Diving into the Wreck'

15 hours ago

Today's segment of Poetry Friday honors courage...specifically, the courage of sexual assault survivors. It is Adrienne Rich's, 'Diving into the Wreck'. She wrote it in 1973 against the backdrop of feminist and civil rights movements. It's about the power to re-write our identities, and re-weave our cultural fabric into something positive, hopeful, and whole. Our reader today is KNAU listener and Faculty Senate President of Northern Arizona University, Gioia Woods. 

The Mermaids Rock, Edward Matthew Hale
Credit Google Images

Gioia Woods:

When I first read this poem probably 35 years ago, one of the first things I got from it was the courage of this narrator. And you’ll see in the poem the narrator puts on these absurd flippers, and this awkward mask, and does her research by reading the Book of Myths, right? And then, finds this ladder that’s always hanging off the edge of this boat. And she goes down into this watery world, this really unknown place, and it takes so much courage for her to go survey this wreck. But the thing about the poem that is so beautiful – aside from the watery imagery, which is so lovely – is the hope that comes out at the end. You’ll notice that at one point the narrator becomes whole, and this poem is hopeful for that reason because I feel like the more we hear and break the silence around sexual assault, the more hopeful – I am, anyway – that things will improve.

Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich

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.

I am having to do this 

not like Cousteau with his

assiduous team

aboard the sun-flooded schooner

but here alone.

There is a ladder.

The ladder is always there

hanging innocently

close to the side of hte schooner.

We know what it is for,

we who have used it.


it is a pice of maritime floss

some sundry equipment.

I go down.

Rung after rung and still

the oxygen immerses me

the blue light

the clear atoms

of our human air.

I go down.

My flippers cripple me,

I crawl like an insect down the ladder 

and there is no one

to tell me when the ocean

will begin.

First the air id blue and then

it is bluer and then green and then

black I am blacking out and yet

my mask is powerful

it pumps my blood with power

the sea is another story

the sea is not a question of power

I have to learn alone

to turn my body without force

in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget

what I came for

among so many who have always

lived here

swaying their crenellated fans

between the reefs

and besides

you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail. 

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed

the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by sale and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters.

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

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes

whose breasts still bear the stress

whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies

obscurely inside barrels

half-wedged and left to rot

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


our names do not appear.

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at gillian.ferris@nau.edu