In her poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich explores a common narrative and fear from the LGBTQ community over the consequence of being different. While for many LGBTQ people, acknowledging their identity and ‘coming out’ has a liberating effect, other people may face rejection or violence in their lifetime. On the extreme end, this may lead to suicide. But Rich’s poetry shows how these outcomes are a “myth” (63). ‘Myth’ may refer to either a traditional story which seeks to explain or justification for something, or a commonly held misconception. Rich plays off this pun to push and show how there’s more fluidity and uncertainty within the LGBTQ community’s tragic history and what it might mean for its future.
The theme of uncertainty carries into the beginning of the poem, where a diver prepares to explore a shipwreck, “First having read the book of myths” (1). Building off the pun, the dive into the water begins to resemble an investigation. The double meaning of “myth,” a falsehood or origin story carries several implications for the diver, who later comes to identify with the shipwreck, “we are the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course” (83-84). In comparing herself to the shipwreck, Rich establishes a metaphor between the ‘myth’ of the wreck and her own personal narrative. The ‘dive’ therefore, becomes a symbol for introspection. However, her use of the pronoun, “we” (83) highlights that this myth goes beyond a single narrative. The ‘wreck’ and the ‘myth’ of the wreck belong to and are, in fact, echoed by a community.
In order to evaluate the metaphor, it is therefore worth exploring the ‘myth’ of the shipwreck. For this, Rich leaves several clues. Harking back to the line, “we are the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course” (83-84), it’s implied that the ship sunk, because it changed directions or went off “course” (84). This is further evidenced by the imagery on line 86, “the fouled compass.” Thus, the ‘myth’ of the wreck could be read as a fear over what happens when someone dares to be different. Given that LGBTQ people have existed on the margins of society (and historically faced violence because of their differences), this would make them especially vulnerable to this narrative.
The final appearance of the word, “myth” cycles back to the first line with some important distinctions, “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear” (92-94). Notably, “the book” (1) becomes “a book” (92), indicating that the myth of the shipwreck no longer has the same definiteness. While breaking off and daring to be unique are key characteristics in the LGBTQ community, this uniqueness doesn’t have to lead to a ‘wreck.’ Rich escapes that fate, declaring “our names do not appear” (94). Rather than a celebration, this conclusion has a melancholy tone, as we are reminded how many LGBTQ people suffered in the past. The narrative is therefore a myth in the same way that the poem’s wreck is “evidence of [the] damage” (66). Both serve as reminders of what many had to go through. But more optimistically, the poem also dispels the deterministic aspects of the narrative, showing that LGBTQ people are free from reliving the tragedies of history.