A Rich Life


I’ve not read Adrienne Rich in years.  Like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, she floated through my decades of the sixties and seventies.  They were the creative women I wished to be – except for the parts of their lives that seemed perpetually tortured and always unresolved.  With Plath and Sexton, I simply got tired of their angst and moved on.  With Rich, I stepped back and watched her life shifts from wife and mother to lesbian activist, and significant voice of protest in the anti-war and women’s movement.  Though I couldn’t imagine what living her life could possibly feel like, I admired her clarity and steady move forward – a woman warrior on the front lines of what many of us cared most about outside our daily lives of car pooling, trips with children to the dentist, work, volunteering and managing our homes.  I always wondered how she processed her husband’s suicide. He killed himself shortly after she left him.

There is a sad irony that her death comes at a time when the rights of women to control their bodies and their destinies are once again challenged.  As Barbara Gelpi said in a 2005 Los Angeles Times interview with Rich, "She expressed the sources of women's pain when women were coming to a sense of their own history and potential."  I would never have imagined that that need would still exist in such measure as it does in early 2012.

Perhaps it is time to read her again, and there is no better place to begin than with one of her best known poems:

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,

and loaded the camera,

and checked the edge of the knife-blade,

I put on

the body-armor of black rubber

the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.

I am having to do this

not like Cousteau with his

assiduous team

aboard the sun-flooded schooner

but here alone.

There is a ladder.

The ladder is always there

hanging innocently

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.


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

will begin.


First the air is blue and then

it is bluer and then green and then

black I am blacking out and yet

my mask is powerful

it pumps my blood with power

the sea is another story

the sea is not a question of power

I have to learn alone

to turn my body without force

in the deep element.


And now: it is easy to forget

what I came for

among so many who have always

lived here

swaying their crenellated fans

between the reefs

and besides

you breathe differently down here.


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.


This is the place.

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair

streams black, the merman in his armored body.

We circle silently

about the wreck

we dive into the hold.

I am she: I am he


whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes

whose breasts still bear the stress

whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies

obscurely inside barrels

half-wedged and left to rot

we are the half-destroyed instruments

that once held to a course

the water-eaten log

the fouled compass


We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear.




Women's Lives: Etta James

“Will I Be Pretty?”