Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
- Interestingly, these lines are all about one thing: a ladder.
- You've probably seen a ladder like this before.
- It hangs off the side or the back of a boat, and dips into the water. For a diver, it's a way to get into the water.
- This poem emphasizes the separation between air and water, between the space above the water and the world below it.
- That's why this ladder matters in this poem. It's what allows you to cross between two worlds, to move from air to water.
- Rich takes her time here, pausing to think about this ladder, to make us look at it.
- What fascinates her is that the ladder has a different meaning once you've used it.
- For people who aren't divers, that ladder "hangs there innocently." It's nothing special; you could walk right by it. Or as she puts it, it's "a piece of maritime floss, some sundry equipment" (20-21).
- ("Maritime floss" means something like "a little string from the sea," and "sundry" just means "random" or "miscellaneous.")
- Both of these phrases are meant to emphasize how ordinary this ladder is.
- But once you have been on a dive, you know that going down the ladder is a major moment. We've probably all had this experience in some way.
- Before you drive a car, you don't really know or care what the different parts are, but once you do, you realize how important a gearshift is, why a brake pedal could mean the difference between life and death.
- Relying on a thing, even an ordinary thing, brings it to life and makes it special.
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
- Now we hear about the speaker's experience descending the ladder.
- For now, the speaker is still in familiar territory: "the oxygen immerses me" (24).
- We usually use the word "immerse" to talk about a liquid, when we submerge something. So this word choice makes it seem like the speaker is swimming in the air.
- We can feel a sense of safety, of normalness in "the clear atoms of our human air" (26-7). At first it seems like an obvious point, but our speaker wants to emphasize how we are dependent on the air.
- Since humans must breathe air in order to survive, it isn't normal for humans to enter the sea, to become part of that world.
- Even the equipment is unnatural; the flippers "cripple" (29) the speaker and make her "crawl like an insect" (30).
- This process of changing worlds is hard, awkward, and maybe a little scary, especially when you are alone.
- The speaker emphasizes loneliness again, reminding us that "there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin" (32-3).