This is a Good Poem, July 2, 2018


It’s summer.  This is my second favorite poem about swimming.  Except it’s not about swimming.  It had a huge impact on me in 1975 and it seems equally relevant today in this regressive age.  Also Adrienne Rich is an amazing poet.

 

Diving into the Wreck

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’s 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 sway 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.

Adrienne Rich, 1973

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11 thoughts on “This is a Good Poem, July 2, 2018

  1. I feel like I’ll need to read and sit with this poem. There’s something intense about it.

    I’ll admit also to burning curiosity if 1975 was a personal event or a national one. I know Watergate and the International Women’s Year were then…

    5+

  2. Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka has been in my mind recently.

    The price seemed reasonable, location
    Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
    Off premises. Nothing remained
    But self-confession. ‘Madam’ , I warned,
    ‘I hate a wasted journey – I am African.’
    Silence. Silenced transmission of pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
    Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
    Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
    ‘HOW DARK?’…I had not misheard….’ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?’ Button B. Button A. Stench
    Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
    Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
    Omnibus squelching tar.
    It was real! Shamed
    By ill-mannered silence, surrender
    Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.
    Considerate she was, varying the emphasis-
    ‘ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT’ Revelation came
    ‘You mean- like plain or milk chocolate?’
    Her accent was clinical, crushing in its light
    Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted
    I chose. ‘West African sepia’_ and as afterthought.
    ‘Down in my passport.’ Silence for spectroscopic
    Flight of fancy, till truthfulness chaged her accent
    Hard on the mouthpiece ‘WHAT’S THAT?’ conceding ‘DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.’ ‘Like brunette.’
    ‘THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?’
    ‘Not altogether.
    Facially, I am brunette, but madam you should see the rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet.
    Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused-
    Foolishly madam- by sitting down, has turned
    My bottom raven black- One momentopp madam! – sensing
    Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
    About my ears- ‘Madam,’ I pleaded, ‘wouldn’t you rather
    See for yourself?’

    11+

  3. Yes. Adrienne Rich has been one of my favorite poets since you told me about this poem over a decade ago – I’ll always be hugely grateful to you for that.
    ]
    And Wole Soyinka is new to me. Thank you, Sure Thing!

    4+

    1. My pleasure. This was such a favourite of mine, I remember learning it and doing it with voices sometime in high school.

      1+

  4. I attended a poetry reading by Adrienne Rich when I was in college. It was amazing! And probably the first time I heard a poet read her own work. IIRC, during that reading, she mentioned the work of Daisy Zamora, whose poetry I absolutely love. Thanks for sharing this poem and making me think about these amazing poets/feminists/revolutionaries. I needed the emotional boost.

    4+

  5. I just started reading “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”, a book of poetry by Ocean Vuong. So far it is moving and gutting.

    1+

  6. I don’t usually have anything to share on first of the month poetry day, but I like it a lot.

    I am dipping into a book of Oscar Wilde quotes that I borrowed from the library. Oh my god he must have been a pain in the arse to know, but I wish I had. He clearly valued wit above truth – half his quotes contradict each other, made for effect and not to make a point, perhaps.

    “If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.”

    – Dorothy Parker

    6+

  7. Took a class on Rich in grad school. Her love sonnets are breathtaking too.

    NancyY – I would have rushed the stage for Adrienne Rich. Or held up a Bic and yelling for “Planetarium.”

    1+

  8. My high school juniors really enjoyed reading Rich’s work. She came at the end of a yearlong survey of English lit; the other authors were men. Kids felt fearless and empowered as they explored Rich’s poetry. Moving from Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers to Diving into the Wreck is truly awe inspiring. Thanks for posting it. I hope your health is improving.

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