I remember spending summers on a small island where my extended family members lived. Off one of the piers where we used to go, a ship had once wrecked. You could still see parts of the wood sticking up out of the water, blackened and weathered.
As I got older, it started to disappear. The last time I saw it, there were just a few skeletal beams reaching out of the waves. A tiny island covered in long grass was directly behind it, empty except for the birds who nest there. I always found that particular spot to be incredibly eerie.
I’ve always had a healthy fear of the ocean. I think anyone who grows up near it does. A lot of my childhood nightmares involved dark water, the ocean in a storm, choppy waves and undertows.
I’ve seen beaches in the aftermath of a storm. They smell salty and rotten. Debris washes up – mostly seaweed of different sorts mixed in with broken shells and the remains of sea creatures that got stranded.
In my mind, that shipwreck and that little island are always highlighted against a dark sky and choppy waves. I’ve made it dark and stormy in my memory. In reality, I never would have been out there in a storm – yet what is more true, how I really saw it, or how I remember it?
I fell in love with Adrienne Rich’s poetry more than a decade ago, in my Master’s program. We read Diving Into the Wreck, which I’d read before, but never as slowly and analytically as I did then. Sometimes that takes the joy out of the experience, but absolutely nothing could take away the beauty of this particular poem.
Aside from the fact that it’s brilliant writing, I felt defensive of it. My professor had a highly sexualized interpretation that he seemed quite attached to, but I thought it deserved so much more than that. It’s been interpreted and analyzed pretty extensively, and rightly so – it’s layered with meaning, yet the imagery is so strikingly and beautifully simple.
A diver putting on her suit, descending the ladder of her boat, and diving alone into the ocean to examine a shipwreck carrying a knife, a camera, and a book of myths in which her name does not appear.
Is it a dream? Is it political awareness? Is it an exploration of one’s own body, or sexuality, or relationship? Is it a poem about rebirth, or self awareness? Is it a rejection of religion, or gender, or accepted social roles?
My answer would be that it can be about all these things, and it can even be literal in a sense, if you want to read a poem about a diver exploring a shipwreck. The imagery alone is worth it.
This poem always reminds me of why people dig up artifacts or search for fragments of parchment and tablets – because we want to learn something about ourselves. I suppose that’s what draws me both to consuming stories, and creating them – a good story is always a deep dive into another world, one in which you’re the stranger, but even if the book of myths does not in any way represent you, there may still be something to discover.
I’ve always read the poem metaphorically, and appreciated its elegance, but there’s a darker undercurrent for me – it reminds me of that shipwreck that I used to visit during my childhood summers, which was a lot less beautiful than the one Rich imagines. The actual shipwreck sobering and haunting and quite frankly, a little bit frightening.
And isn’t that the real story?