Adrienne Rich died this week. Her voice, in her poems, writing, and speaking, was never strident, always insistent that we remember our highest selves and live for them. She wrote about class differences and indifferences and the pain and joy we cause ourselves and others in concise and brilliant language that placed her at the forefront of American letters. She never compromised—and she rued the compromises we make in the pursuit of comfort. Someone, she reminded us again and again, always pays for that untroubled comfort. She was unwilling to settle for comfort.
Diving into the Wreck, a collection of poems written in 1971-72, remains one of my favorite of her books. “…poems taut with pain and intelligence,” writes Marge Piercy of this volume. “…nobody else writes quite like this,” said Margaret Atwood. The poems are observations, introspections, revelations. They range wide and go deep, skating from social commentary to searing metaphor. Even the early poems never seem dated. It’s possible to slip inside every one and experience the life it transcribes as the poet did.
The title poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” is a marvel of fact and symbol. I don’t know whether Rich was a diver but she gets the precise detail of a scuba dive on a wreck in the shallows exactly right, so I assume she’d been there. She gets the rest right, too. What is the wreck but an image of a life, an emblem for the battered heart, broken against rock or shoal? Rich writes:
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.
You tend to realize, at the end of a line or a stanza, that you have been holding your breath, loathe to miss a beat or a syllable or the architecture of an unexpected phrase. Adrienne Rich wrote powerful, powerful poetry—poems designed to conjure or, at the very least, agitate for keen personal awareness and social change. Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award. Rich won nearly every award bestowed on a poet in her long writing life. But she never lost her edge, her discomfort, the pebble in the shoe that leads, inevitably, to the poem.
Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 Adrienne Rich | W. W. Norton & Company 1993