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.
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
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
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