The Past and Suffering within “Diving into the Wreck”

At first glance, Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” tells a story of a person in the ocean, surrounded by a ladder, and enveloped within their equipment. While this rendition is quite literal, I ultimately believe that the poem is metaphorical, and that the ‘wreck’ can be synonymous to the past and its’ aftermath on the speaker. Other than the title itself, the first instance where ‘wreck’ is mentioned by Rich is in the sixth stanza. She states,
“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” (102).
In this specific excerpt from the poem, the reader is able to identify the speaker’s desires and that this ‘exploration’ was not forced upon themself, but rather chosen. Through the word choice and repetition of “I came to…”, Rich shows the speaker as willing to embark on this ‘dive within the ocean’. Following this phrase are verbs, such as “explore” and “see”, which display the reader’s ambition and eagerness to come in contact with things that may not be so pleasant. By pairing the verbs with this common phrase, there is a sense of irony. Why would the speaker want to “explore the wreck”? Why would the speaker come to “see the damage that was done”? I believe that the answer to these questions is within the next line, “and the treasures that prevail”. The wreck, being synonymous to the past, would allow for the speaker to make reflections upon their actions. Thus, “treasures” would then be available, and this past reflection would force the speaker to grow (in terms of how they dealt with certain experiences).
In the following stanza, Rich furthers the idea of the ‘wreck’ being the speakers’ past experiences. She explains,
“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” (102).
Rich begins the stanza by preparing the reader for an overarching idea of why the speaker ‘dove into the wreck’. She starts with, “the wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing of itself and not the myth”. If the reader were to assume that the ‘wreck’ means the speaker’s past, then the disregard for the story of the past only heightens the speaker’s distaste for being stuck within the past. The speaker ultimately wants to use this ‘wreck’ as a learning experience and not dwell. Rich continues this idea by stating,
“the drowning face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty” (102). Through the metaphor of “the drowning face always staring”, the reader can infer that the past is always lingering. By positioning the face “towards the sun”, this demonstrates how the speaker has the ability to use the past to their advantage. However, this has not been done yet and the reader can assume through Rich’s explanation of this image, being “the evidence of damage”. Rich’s choice of words and imagery-rich style of writing allows the reader to infer that the speaker is referencing their life and the hardships they may face within ‘the ocean’. Even so, there is a sense of desire and eagerness of the speaker towards their past, and essentially utilizing such for their personal growth.