Study Guide

Diving into the Wreck Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Adrienne Rich

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

The Book of Myths

We'll start off with a big one here, maybe the most important and the most mysterious symbol in the poem. This book is the first and last image in the poem, which is a good way to know that it really matters to Rich. At the same time, it doesn't quite seem to belong in the same world as the dive down to the wreck. It's hard to imagine that this "book of myths" is just a book with some old myths in it.

  • Line 1: This is the first mention of the book of myths. It's the opening image of the poem. The book is listed along with other equipment for diving, so we might feel like it's just a practical object. Maybe the diver learned something about an ancient shipwreck by looking in a book of myths. But what else might that name mean? Myths can be ancient and valuable tales passed down in a culture. They can also just be lies, made up stories, as in: "Oh that's just a myth." At first we don't get many clues about this book. We are left to think about the image as we read the rest of the poem.
  • Line 92: Here, at the end off the poem, we come back to the book, almost as if this whole piece existed between its covers. This time, we get a little more information. We are told that in this book, "our names do not appear." It's sort of hard to imagine that this is a good thing. The speaker has spun out a whole story about diving to the wreck, but now that has all been erased or removed from the book. In this light, we might start to think of the book as a symbol of something larger. Maybe it represents the false history that ignores the voices of people like this diver. If the myths do not include our lives, how can they be good and true?

The Knife

Each one of the objects the diver carries seems important in a different way. A knife can be a tool, or it can be a weapon. In both cases though, it shows that the diver might expect things to get dangerous. Even though the knife never gets used, it starts and ends this poem on a spooky note.

  • Line 3: There's something dark and a little scary about this line. If you just bring a knife along on your dive out of habit, it might not mean much. But if you stop to check the blade, you must mean business. In this way the knife becomes a symbol of the possibility of violence.
  • Line 91: Here too the knife shows up as one of a trio: knife, camera, and book. We won't force this on you, but we think the image of these three things could be a metaphor for any number of different ideas: The camera that traps memories, the knife that kills, the book that holds nothing but lies. They are necessary for the dive, but they are also potentially harmful.

The Ladder

Did you notice how much airtime this ladder gets? Rich gives it almost twenty lines. This makes us think that there much be a lot of meaning attached to it. If this poem is about diving, why do we spend so much time on the preparation? The ladder, after all is what lets you begin, (and perhaps end), a dive.

  • Line 13: Here's where the ladder is introduced. Rich merely indicates to us that it's there. But that's a lot already. It forces us to confront the image of the ladder, to think about what ladders do. We become conscious that ladders are a way to change our position, to move up or down. In this case, the move down will take the diver into another world.
  • Lines 14-15: Here the ladder almost becomes a character. When the speaker describes the ladder as "hanging there innocently" that's called personification, because it gives a human quality to an object. If you aren't going down that ladder, it doesn't mean anything to you. So it looks innocent, it covers up its purpose. In reality though, it can transport you to a completely different place, which is what it does to the diver.
  • Line 30: The ladder is a way down, but it is also an obstacle. The diver is already weighed down by flippers, a mask, a suit, and other diving equipment. So getting down that ladder is no small task. To show how awkward this is, Rich uses a simile, comparing the clumsy diver to an insect. The move into another world isn't going to be an easy one.

The Ocean

This body of water isn't always mentioned directly in the poem, but it's definitely ever-present. The ocean is huge, deeply powerful, magical and a little scary. It swallowed the ship and it surrounds the diver. It's about as wild and as natural as you can get.

  • Line 32: This is the first direct mention of the ocean. It comes up as a surprise, since the diver can't see it as she moves down the ladder. This makes the ocean frightening, like something that could jump up and bite you. Imagine diving into a pool with your eyes closed.
  • Line 39-40: Here too the ocean is a stranger, although maybe not so frightening any more. The diver is learning to move underwater, to get used to the feeling of actually being "inside" the ocean. The ocean is completely in control though, and the diver can't fight it, can't use his or her power. There's a bit of alliteration here too, in the "s" sounds of sea and story. Rich uses these poetic techniques lightly, but effectively.
  • Line 85: Here's a case where the ocean is barely present, but still important. The speaker describes the log as being "water-eaten." It seems like an ordinary thing to say, but it gives an image of the ocean as a kind of animal. It gnaws and chews and slowly devours all the human things that fall into it. It has a slow, inescapable power that makes it a scary force in this poem.

The Wreck

The wreck is the title image of this poem, and carries a lot of weight here. It refers to an actual object, a sunken ship that the driver is trying to reach. But it also seems to point us toward other kinds of wrecks.

  • Line 52: This wreck is a metaphor for human suffering. In a way, this wreck represents the remains of any disaster or event that has changed our lives. All disasters have some kind of wreckage we can keep coming back to, something we can keep diving into.
  • Line 68: Here the speaker personifies the wreck by referring to its "ribs." These are actual beams that support the ship, but here they can't help but make us think of the drowned bodies that are floating around too. The rib image makes the disaster of the wreck into an echo of the human tragedy.

The Mermaid/Merman

This image initiates the speaker's final transformation. At first, the speaker is a human diver, but then she becomes a strange aquatic creature. A made up creature too, the sort of thing you might find in a book of myths.

  • Lines 72-73: These weird creatures are a symbol of the union between humanity and the ocean, a human torso on the body of a fish. They also help erase the boundary between man and woman, since the speaker identifies with both sexes of "merperson."

Compass, Log

These items are ruined parts of the ship. They were once useful, but they have been destroyed by the disaster. Unlike the rest of the ruined cargo, these would have been essential instruments for navigating a ship. They were the only way to know what direction you were headed (compass) and where you had been (log).

  • Lines 85-86: Like all the other debris in the sunken ship, these objects have been ruined by the sea. Although they were once useful, they now have no purpose. They are a pretty loud metaphor for how powerless we are against nature. We try hard to fight against nature, , but it always wins and eats us up in the end.

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