The Thing Itself and not the Myth


  Diving into the Wreck is one of Adrienne Rich’s most renowned poems from 1973. Rich was celebrated as an active feminist and some of her ideals were perhaps extreme, but captivating nonetheless. One of the more popular interpretations of the poem online is that Rich focuses on humanity. It focuses on “storytellers as observers, recorders, and explorers; and the isolation of life”, argues Sara Barkat(2014). And although I agree that the isolation component of the poem is essential to its interpretation, knowledge about Rich’s background cannot be ignored when reading the text. Rich was a feminist and her poems reflect her beliefs about the patriarchal society. This exceptional poem illustrates how more women need to partake in the field of literature.

adrienne-rich_photo-by-thomas-victor-courtesy-of-schlesinger-library_305px_0_0 (Adrienne Rich. Photo by Thomas Victor.)

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.

Here Adrienne Rich describes the narrator preparing for her dive. Rich’s language is full of connotations of getting ready for battle. She loads the camera, as a soldier would load a gun. She then checks the sharpness of her knife and puts on a “body-armor”. Rich intentionally sets up a scene that resembles soldiers preparing for war. This particular war is between a woman and a male dominated field.

I am having to do this
assiduous team
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone

The narrator is alone on her schooner, whereas Cousteau had the support of a crew. This represents women trying to break into the field of literature only to find themselves isolated and expected to do things on their own. Whereas a man  would have support and encouragement from different academics and scholars. And so she sets off on a solo diving mission, inspecting the water.


(Empty Earth Full Sky S1. Ep.16- Diving Into the Wreck (Season 1 Finale))

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.

The ship represents women in literature and the work they’ve done throughout history. The ship has sunken to the bottom of the sea of stories written by men. Adrienne Rich narrates how the purpose of the adventure was to find the treasure of words written by great female authors before her time, and what kind of art was lost in history.

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 narrator emphasises her goal to discover something tangible rather than stereotypes and myths that have been told to her throughout her life. I believe the drowned faces represent the female authors who have been lost in history or who haven’t been acknowledged. They stare at the sun for a glimmer of hope, having faith that their work will live on.

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.

Here Adrienne addressees the readers, reaching out to women everywhere, uniting them as one. She mirrors her first stanza in her last stanza. This time the narrator is not alone because the readers become warriors joining her for battle, they become fellow wreck divers. Women’s names do not appear in history because of the discrimination they have faced from the beginning of time. So many women would use male pen names or go by anonymous so that their work wouldn’t be discriminated against and for the fear of their safety. And so Rich reminds the readers that there is a perpetual problem in the patriarchal society that only women can combat.


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One thought on “The Thing Itself and not the Myth

  1. This is such an excellent reading of Rich’s poem. I really appreciate your close engagement with it. Interesting that the diver/explorer find recognizes herself in the debris of the wreckage. \ In some ways this buried treasure that is women’s writing reminds me of Woolf’s image of Judith Shakespeare lying buried at a London crossroads beneath the Elephant and Castle. I’m also reminded of Dickinson’s pearl lying on the seabed in “She rose to His Requirement.”


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