Bear with us if this seems a little spacey, but we think the sound of this poem imitates the breathing of a scuba diver. You know that sound you hear in a movie when someone is diving, or maybe wearing a space helmet? (This poem sounds a lot like Darth Vader to us, but we're not sure Adrienne Rich would love the idea.) Try just cupping your hands over your mouth and breathing a few times. Do you hear how loud your breath is? Do you feel how different breathing is when there's something in the way? It might even make you feel a little panicky. When you're nervous like that, your breaths come fast and sharp and hard.
Look at the first 50 lines or so of this poem. The lines are broken up, as if someone was panting them out between quick breaths. Read a few lines aloud, and see if you can hear that choppy, harsh sound. Then, move down a little, to the last twenty lines or so. Do you see how the lines get longer, how they smooth out? When you read them you can almost hear the speaker taking long, quiet, relaxed breaths. She has settled into the rhythm of underwater breathing, has calmed down enough to speak whole sentences. We still hear the lonely, hollow sound of someone breathing through a mask, but now there's no sense of panic at all.