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.
Otherwise
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 away 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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of the poem by

27 Comments

  1. Ruby says:

    I love all her poems and this poem is a true masterpiece. In few lines she has explained such important modes of life, the base of poem is depended upon different professions and i personally believe it is rather a one line story of events occurring around us, making it beautiful and distinguished among other of her literary works.

  2. Sage says:

    I actually really like this poem and believe that it hold both feminist and just overall human meanings. I do believe there is such thing as over analyzing a poem but there is also such thing as not giving the author enough credit for her intelligence. Obviously if you have read anything about the author’s life you would know she is a very intelligent person and MLH is just an example of those people who don’t like deep thinking. There is nothing wrong with analyzing a poem to figure out if there is a deeper meaning, sometimes there really isn’t but usually the authors of poems are trying to get us to think…. so THINK!

  3. Ashley Page says:

    Mike Strazzire – It’s awful sad that you are critisizing someone who is trying to understand a really significant piece of poetry, while being pretty off base yourself. Considering you’re in a literary forum, it seems as though it would be more beneficial to everyone if you would help foster a comfortable learning environment for others by not being hostile. My first read through I took it literally, and after reading it a second time started to understand that this poem is the account of a females journey into adulthood, and independence. There is too much to leave all here, but everytime I read it I come away with something new. My suggestion to people who are doing a literal reading is to keep reviewing it, and you will see more to it. Jeremy D, you described pretty much exactly what I came away with, as well as many of my classmates.

  4. mike strazzire says:

    the poem is a metaphor for finding the work of women long lost and forgotten. it is, and never was, about an actual shipwreck. It’s called figurative language…look into it some time before you show how dumb you really are by opening your mouth.

  5. Jeremy D. says:

    The fact is, this poem evokes far deeper a meaning of personal growth and understanding than several of you can gather. Not to sound like an arrogant prick, but if you read this poem and think, for a second, that it is not a reference to her rebirth of self and furthermore realization that she is, in fact, capable of doing anything and everything set in front of her without the help of a “man” or a dictator of some sort, then you are sorely mistaken. The line: “I am she: I am he” clearly defines the thought that she, the narrator, has embraced the ability to be self-governing and dependent upon no one but herself alone.

    If you’re interested in an interesting parallel look at the notions of “hembrismo” offered in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel: “Chronicle of a Death Foretold;” in particular, focus on the character Maria Alejandrina Cervantes…

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Why can’t this just be a poem about a ship wreck? Why do you have to find some hidden meaning with every poem?

  7. Isabel says:

    When I first started to read the poem I thought it was about a reporter going into the war to capture and experience events that had been going on, regardless if they were a man/woman. As I read further down they would describe how days/nighhts were perceived to them as days were spent there. I think Rich was writing from a Soldier/Marines type of view. Even if I am wrong about my views I do not believe that Rich was writing about broken marriages- or suicides or anything that has to do with our own problems ..I believe she was trying to define as she saw it and how it affected everyone in general being a man/woman.

  8. Zack says:

    Line 55 “I came to see the damage that was done” echoes the title of Neil Young’s song “The needle and the damage done” released a year before Rich’s poem.

  9. Casey says:

    I believe the comment by Patrice Kapur a few boxes down is the most accurate analysis. I must say, good analysis, sir. Some great insights, especially about the bias of the reader going into the poem.

    And whoever said this poem is boring, I challenge you to increase your knowledge of poetry. I found poetry extremely boring before I learned of their techniques. Once you have a better understanding of the techniques of poetry, it’s a whole new world reading it.

  10. kira kepka says:

    i hink this poem is really boring and oo long

  11. Nicole says:

    Interesting comments about what the wreck stands for. Personally, I interpreted as the past.

  12. Matt Levesque says:

    Without providing analysis line by line, I have always interpreted this poem as a metaphysical one. Viewing the diver as a spiritual being taking human form and experiencing the physical realm. If you are a spiritual being and you assume human form, your body or feet would seem to be “absurd flippers.”

  13. paul volponi says:

    What a great piece of work! I haven’t read this since college, and it’s better than I remember it–Paul Volponi

  14. Jason says:

    i really enjoyed analyzing Rich’s poem. I personally think she is caught between her feminist views and an experience she is trying to describe as a woman, something that made her feel devalued, as well as used. I think she expressess it very well throughout the poem, but she does find herself using single phrases that sound like she needed to add in to justify her point of view.

  15. Patrice Kapur says:

    I think that there is an unfortunate tendency among poetry readers to view a writer’s work within the narrow prism of what the reader knows about the writer’s personal life. I think that this approach may be useful in deciphering the meaning of poems written by relatively inexperienced poets, but it makes no sense in analyzing this work, which was completed by one of our country’s most penetrating and accomplished writers.

    Rich is not talking about strictly personal issues (marriage, suicide, etc.) in this poem; rather, she is thoughtfully and deliberately talking about the wreckage of our society and the need to go beyond myth (the STORY of the wreck) so that we can assess the damage actually being caused by our social structures, as well as recognize the treasures contained within them. Only by doing so can we correct serious social problems and simultaneously retain those social norms that are healthy and productive.

    Rich takes us on this voyage as a genderless being early in the work, pointing to a concern about gender-based social definitions, among others, in the poem. By the end of the piece, she expands her view beyond gender and addresses the reader as both an individual and part of a collective whole, directing us to look at the wreck of our society so we can (presumably) change its course. In the last line, our names do not appear in the book of myths because the pervasive, patriarchal and limited views of our society contained in such a book does not match the reality of individual lives.

  16. Dermick says:

    This poem is overrated, get to the point, no one needs this metaphor about women

  17. Eloise says:

    I’m dwelling on single phrases: “The words are purposes./The words are maps.” 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.

  18. Donna says:

    I think this poem is about diving into (looking deeper into) a patriarchal society and trying to analyze it and understand why the world is like it is.

  19. Marie says:

    I thought that this poem was interesting. I studied this poem for my literature class the more we analysed it the more interesting the poem was. I thought that using am ocean and diving into the ocean was a clever metaphore. The book if Myths at the start are ironic to what happens however I believe that the book is Adrienne’s to her life.

  20. Victor says:

    i don’t think this poem should be taken so autobiographically. although we can say that this poem is influenced by the author’s own experiences, it is necessary to consider the themes inherent in all her other works of poetry, and that is feminism. this wreck, as i interpret, is an observational journey into what is the wreck of male and female relations, in particular the disadvantages that women experienced during the time of the poem’s writing. this is, however, a poem about the process of surveyance. i don’t think any real resolution is reached; evidence is collected, photos taken, but no conclusion is reached.

  21. Beatrice says:

    I’m intrigued by this “book of myths” which opens and closes the poem about the wreck, but what she’s looking for is “the thing itself and not the myth”? Not the myth?
    But we still carry the book of myths with us …
    “a book of myths
    in which
    our names do not appear.”

    But what is a “myth”?
    A story?Ideas? Lyes? Words?
    “The words are purposes.
    The words are maps.”

    The myths are those who guide us to the “things” to reality, but is it our duty to follow them, the myths, to discover our realities? Our wrecks?

    Too many questions? Well, sorry, I do not have answers…

  22. Matt says:

    While looking at the poem it is a temptation for the reader to see this as a metaphor for Rich’s failed marriage do not do this! While there might be glimpses of this motif in the poem the poem is about the personal journey one must take to find the world (in the poem it is the wreck) that existed sometime in pre-history that allowed men and women to co-exist without patriarchy as equals.
    She does go inward, looking for the truth not the abstract and definately not looking for questions about her marriage. She goes inward to find this truth about the wreck because it is a journey everyone must take by themselves! Rich writes, “We are, I am, you are/ by cowardice or courage/ the one who find our way” showing that this is a trip that must be taken by all, but must be taken alone because if you bring others, the truth of the wreck will not be found because of the myths others would bring if they were not there for themselves searching as Rich does for the truth of a world where the androgenous lived.

  23. Sara Militello says:

    It sounds to me like she wrote about how , after her husband committed suicide, she went inward trying to find answers to the many questions that invariably occur to those left behind, specifically her’s in this case, and learned who she had become over the years and through the wrenching loss of her husband under the most trying circumstance of suicide; and how to go on with her life and new knowledge of herself.

  24. Jerry says:

    i think think this poem kind of relate to me because it made me think of my past.

  25. GPM says:

    My first impression of this poem was that it is about the poet describing a backwards look at her marriage (the wreck). Her (ex)husband committed suicide around the time of the writing of this poem.She speaks about the damage done and the words that were maps, and I understand the sexual androgney to mean that there is no man or woman in the blame, but rather that they were both individuals in the marriage.

  26. K says:

    I don’t think this poem is a metaphor for anything. I think it’s literally about a ship wreck. Mrs. Rich fooled you all.

  27. Bill Wheeler says:

    I wanted to purchase this book for my girl friend twenty years ago. Also, I loved the title ‘the dream of a common language.”
    She bought tickets to a “HOT TUNA” concert instead. And, in her grand parent’s cottage by the lake in Maine, she said she did not love me.
    So Much for the honeymoon.
    BW

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