"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.
From The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Copyright © 1994 by the University of Tennessee Press.