A Close Reading of the Poem Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich

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Upon first look, the poem is a mess of a dive, a dive in which the persona survives and returns to the boat; however, on a deeper level, topics such as the journey of life, discovering who one is, what their purpose is, and how they will live on as themselves. The aforementioned topics did not come to life during the first time that the poem was read or listened to, but it did on the third time it was re-read after researching about who Jacques Cousteau is and about who Adrienne Rich is, and their identity gave birth to the idea that the poem is about going through the journey of life alone. This can be interpreted in multiple varying directions like love, academics, profession, marriage, friendship, and everything else that a person will experience, may experience, alone. And in this paper, this will be discussed: how Adrienne Rich describes the life of Jacques Cousteau in a way that does not pertain to him but instead pertains to the worlds of both past generations and the generation today. This will be discussed with the help of the books in the Art Series: Art of Attention (Donald Revell) and Art of Description (Mark Doty). And despite the poem’s creation in the early 70s by Adrienne Rich, the experience and emotions behind it are relatable up to this day. However, before taking a closer look into the poem, a brief history of Jacques Cousteau that is either seen or related to the poem will first be provided.

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Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910, in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, France where he lived there with his father, Daniel Cousteau, an International Lawyer and his mother, Elizabeth Cousteau, the daughter of a wealthy Landowner and Wine Merchant. He began swimming at the age of 4 but began his love for swimming underwater when was at a Summer Camp in Vermont, during the time he and his family lived in New York U.S.A. Then, at the age of 20, he passed the exams for the French Naval Academy in Brest where he trained for 2 years before spending 1 year at sea, in which he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and spent the next 2 years sailing the seas. However, at the age of 25, he was involved in a car crash that left him with a dozen broken bones, multiple fractures in both arms, and half of his body paralyzed. Luckily, he managed to return to his feet after months of therapy, with most of it being spent in swimming to strengthen his arms. And it was then that he improvised a pair of swimming goggles from aircraft pilot goggles and dived to explore the seafloor whose beauty left such a deep impression on him that he decided to make diving his life’s work. Further, into the future, Cousteau grew frustrated with the available breathing equipment for divers, and so, he experimented with oxygen, however, at below 45 feet, the oxygen toxicity caused him to faint therefore he abandoned the idea. Later, the Demand Regulator had been invented, by Émile Gagnan, a French engineer, in the year 1942, and in it, Cousteau saw its potential as a valve for divers. And so, Cousteau made suggestions to Gagnan for its modification, therefore the Diving Regulator or Aqualung was made. It was co-invented and patented by Gagnan and Cousteau who quickly incorporated it into the SCUBA apparatus, thus allowing him to swim freely beneath the waves. Then, in 1948, Cousteau used his new SCUBA equipment to explore a sunken Roman wreck in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Mahdia, Tunisia. And in 1950, Cousteau shared his plans to make undersea film documentaries with Thomas Loel Guinness, a wealthy British philanthropist who bought a former car ferry and leased it to Cousteau who then named the ship Calypso. He had made multiple movies and documentaries, some of which are 18 meters deep and The Silent World (movies), The Golden Fish and World without Sun (documentaries), and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (T.V. documentary series).

In analyzing the poem, the allegorical context that is understood will be what is tackled and discussed. An allegory is a story, play, poem, picture, or other works in which the characters and events represent moral, religious, or political qualities or ideas ( The allegory can be understood using personal embodied knowledge, an interpretation of their own in alignment with what they know and what they have experienced though the latter is rarely used in interpretations (Okonski 3-4).

Delving into the first stanza of ‘Diving into the Wreck’, in the first stanza, the first lines mentions the persona’s equipment, the book of myths, the camera, the knife-blade, and the body-armor of black rubber, the absurd flippers, the grave and awkward mask. These, the objects of the persona’s attention, are objects that are of importance, objects that aid in the preparation of the upcoming dive. The book of myths is pertaining to a hobby; reading everything there is to know about the sea, about diving, about the SCUBA gear, about the legends of the sea. This also pertains to the education that seeks to prepare students for both College and Work-life, and also pertains to the untold ranks within society that separates man from man; the poor and the rich, the educated and the uneducated, the homosexuals and the heterosexuals, the male and the female, and many others that bring fissure to the world of man. Myths are stories that originated from reality but gradually turned fiction due to time and the difference in culture between generations, however, these are and can be sources of information, inspiration, and discrimination; a commonly believed but false idea ( The camera is a tool to record of the entirety of the journey during the dive, from the beautiful sights of the seafloor to the fear-inducing marine animals that lurk within, from the joy of experiencing diving for the first time to the sadness of seeing the destruction that had occurred to the corals. This also pertains to the eye of the human person that sees everything that is occurring (the lens of a camera) and the mind that stores every memory that the eye has recorded (the memory card of a camera), from the birth of a child to the child’s first step or word, from an entire day filled with games to a tiring day in school filled with papers and tests and readings, from commuting early in the morning everyday to a leisure drive in ones own car, from reaching for the dream to living the dream. The knife-blade is a tool to protect oneself from the dangers beneath the waters, a tool to reassure oneself that during the dive there is something that can be used to repel the horrors of the ocean. This also pertains to religion, faith, the Bible that offers salvation and protection from all kinds of evil; and it also pertains to education that will aid in the workplace that demands information, data, experience, and commonsense. The body-armor of black rubber, the absurd flippers, the grave and awkward mask is a suit that is made specifically for SCUBA divers and is normally only worn during a dive. This also pertains to a formal suit that is worn to work, a suit that has not been worn before along with brand new dress shoes that are uncomfortable to the feet, and a smile that is always present to please both the customer and the boss. The formal suit comes from the description of body-armor of black rubber (could be like a bulletproof vest beneath the suit in action movies) that fits the body perfectly much like a suit that would look awful if the fit is either too loose or too tight, the absurd flippers that seems to pertain to loosely fit footwear, and the grave and awkward mask is like the smile that people wear when they are uncomfortable yet have the need to be polite. These are objects that aid in preparing a diver for a dive and these are objects that also aid in preparing a student for both College life and Work-life. However, sometimes, even with such preparation, disasters happen during either the dive or during professional life and for such, these objects, especially the knife-blade will aid both the diver and the student to conquer the disasters that come their way.

The second stanza then mentions that there is a ladder and that we know what it is for, we who have used it. And truly, the function of a ladder is known as it is always used to either climb up the side of a wall, a boat, a double-decker bed or to cross a gap by using the ladder as a makeshift bridge. But the purpose here is to aid the persona in climbing up the ship when the persona wishes to return to land or to lessen the gap between the persona and the hull of the ship without the help of another. It is to say that despite the lack of company, we can and will climb back up again, with or without anyone’s aid. And in the second stanza, it’s amazing how Rich took note that the ladder is quite often used to aid people in either construction work or housework and that its function is widely known. Another is how Rich says the ladder is always there / hanging innocently, and it does hang innocently in houses when they are not in use. And then, after bringing in a scene that comes from land, in the garages of houses in the city far from the sea, Rich returns the readers to the boat with otherwise / it is a piece of maritime floss / some sundry equipment. Her use of it is a piece of maritime floss / some sundry equipment is a breeze of a description and yet, with it brings the scorch of the sun and the smell of the sea.

Then, Rich begins with I go down in the third stanza, followed by rung after rung and still / the oxygen immerses me / the blue light / the clear atoms / of our human air. Beginning with I go down, it clearly shows that the persona is going down, but the how is not mentioned, it could be by jumping off, falling off, or climbing down the ladder. Afterward, the lines rung after rung and still / the oxygen immerses me / the blue light / the clear atoms / of our human air speaks of the persona still with the company of air so clear that the light passes through it and reveals the atoms that form it. And it is amazing how Rich describes it as the blue light and the clear atoms. The blue light signifies the sky and the sea, and the previous line the oxygen immerses me supports the description as both the sky and the sea are filled with oxygen and its beauty is revealed by the light. And, despite the difference in form, they both drown and immerse the persona in oxygen, with the former’s oxygen being mixed with other types of gases while the latter’s oxygen is mixed with the water. And then, Rich follows with another I go down but the following lines are 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. Here, as mentioned earlier with the absurd flippers, these are normally only worn during a dive and are like brand new dress shoes that are uncomfortable to the feet. Therefore, it could be said that the persona is uncomfortable and most likely does not have much experience with it. Then, the following line of I crawl like an insect down the ladder, the insect is not mentioned however with the varied insects and their varied movements, the persona must have tumbled down the ladder with the object in the previous line the promulgator for the fall, the absurd flippers. Following this are the lines and there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin, and here, it exemplifies the idea of the persona tumbling down the ladder, of the persona’s eyes closing, and of the persona waiting for her descent into the waters below.

Then, in the fourth stanza, the lines 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 show that the persona has tumbled into the water and the persona’s eyes open to see the colors of both the sky and the sea, but then the fear overtakes her. Luckily, the mask is powerful enough to sustain the persona beneath the waves. However, this could also be seen as a person having either depression or a breakdown and the person’s friends being a wonderful support that helps the person to stand back up on their own feet. And then the following lines 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 signifies that the sea is not strong, that the sea is not frightening, but despite that, the persona has to learn how to go with its flow, not against it. This could also be a person in the world being drowned in the sea of many other people that try to fight against the disasters of their life when they should just allow it to take place to improve themselves and go with the flow of life.

And then, the entire fifth stanza speaks of how it is easy for the persona to forget the purpose as to why they made the descent and join those who are beneath the waves. And then the line you breathe differently down here, this entire stanza speaks of the ideals and the propagandas to protect the ocean floor, the corals, and the marine animals that live in it. And, it also speaks of the people who are losing sight of their purpose in this world and those who have lost sight of their purpose in this world, they breathe differently signifies that they live differently from those who still have not lost sight of their purpose.

Then the following stanzas, the sixth stanza, the seventh stanza, the eighth stanza, and the ninth stanza, they speak of seeking the history of the world to find the beauty of the disaster, how death brings about life. And they also speak of how a person would look to the past, find out what had gone wrong to make right the future that is still theirs. And should they find the beauty within the wreck, the old them will still be wrecked, but the future them will be sparkling with jewels untold.

And the final stanza, the tenth stanza, speaks of how people find a way back to the light, be it either through survival or through living because that is what a human is; persistence.

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