Friday, September 07, 2012

On diving into the wreck...and climbing out of it

I've loved the poetry of Adrienne Rich since high school. I discovered her work around the same time as Plath and Sexton and read her poems with the same morbid fascination (and wondering how she survived when the other two did not). When I heard the news of Rich's death in March of this year, it struck me again, how she lived on to write the obits of moody colleagues suffering the same dark disease, diving over and over into the depths, making it farther and longer each time, being the only one who knew how to rise again. She published her last work just a year before her death.

In my own writing, I always knew when it was good. It was good when it hurt, when it felt like hell. I wallow in nostalgia, dipping down and then rising again to find bleak humor in failure, in embarrassment, in broken hearts. Diving into the wreck for material, surfacing to turn words into paragraphs into essays. I've carried a copy of Rich's "Diving Into the Wreck" with me for years. It's what I think of every time I have to do the work of dredging up my own past, and often what I share with writers with whom I work when they are struggling over and over to plumb their own depths. The wreck is always there, I tell them. But you don't have to live there. You don't have to drown.

Rich meant something different, we learned in Lit 101. It's about patriarchy, gender politics, feminine bondage. Says the professor, but I choose to believe that it's a metaphor for returning to our own crime scenes, picking over the husk of memory to find the gold, taking care not to run out of oxygen and become part of the wreck. You can decide for yourself.

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 the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece 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 is 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 salt 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
in which
our names do not appear.

It has been a struggle for the past few years, trying to find my voice again, wondering if it was gone forever. I spent more time than I should have diving into that wreck, deeper than I had gone before. I set up house there for a while. I sank to the bottom and let the water fill my lungs and take over. I am tearful as I write this, remembering how hard it was to find it and stay whole, the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck.

I wanted to write about the damage that has been done. The evidence of damage. I want to write about what surrender felt like. It was easy to let go. It was easy to live down there, so much harder to climb out. And besides, you breathe differently down here. 

But I did. Climb out. And I find it harder every day to go back. By cowardice or courage. I still know the way down. The ladder is always there. I try to stick close to the surface, skimming the water, not allowing myself to sink this time. We know what it is for, we who have used it.


  1. I've read your post over and again, trying to decide what it all means to me. And I've decided that I dive into the wreck NOT to add another page to the book of myths, but "to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail."

  2. Thank you, Angie. I loved working with you on your book and diving with hope is that I can learn how to do it on my own with as much courage. I let cowardice take me there too often.


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