Pure Poetry #17: Adrienne Rich Came to Explore the Wreck

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – Adrienne Rich, by Taylor

Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?

I don’t remember when or how I started reading Adrienne Rich, but I’ll fill in the gaps because they’re just as true. I know it was my first year of college, might as well have been on a crisp blue fall day walking across Washington Square Park. Everything was across the park since I lived on the West side, and the fountain was a stone bowl collecting leaves.

I carried this worn little 1978 copy of The Dream of a Common Language that I’d scooped up at the used book store near Union Square and taken home to nurse. The book was well-worn before it came to me, emanating an odd, potent kind of energy from the minute I picked it up. The copy had been handled by a stranger for so long it had become a trapdoor to someone else’s interior experience altogether. I carried it with me, adding dog-ears to dog-ears, pencil to what was written in pen.

A year or two later, I met Rich at a reading in New York. She was a tiny woman with a body that folded into itself with age, but her eyes were sharp and bright. I hate meeting anyone I have even a fleeting reverence for, for fear of rupturing the solipsistic uniquely yours quality that makes you wear their work on your sleeve, like a heart you didn’t write. I downed a few cups of too-thick syrah, clasped her tiny hand and said very little.

I continued to take the train from Canal Street to 96th Street three times a week, employing all of strategies at my disposal to angle for a seat so I could enjoy the same poems for 34 minutes each way. Last year I moved to California with about five books, my first copy of The Dream of a Common Language among them, dog-eared and stuffed with the detritus of a different time.

My favorite poem is in a different collection of Rich entirely, another one, of course, very much worth owning:

“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 away 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.

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Taylor has written 136 articles for us.


  1. omg. “like this together”

    Wind rocks the car.
    We sit parked by the river,
    silence between our teeth.
    Birds scatter across islands
    of broken ice. Another time
    I’d have said, “Canada geese,”
    knowing you love them.
    A year, ten years from now
    I’ll remember this—
    this sitting like drugged birds
    in a glass case—
    not why, only that we
    were here like this together.


    They’re tearing down, tearing up
    this city block, block by block
    Rooms cut in half
    hang like flayed carcasses,
    their old roses in rags,
    famous streets have forgotten
    where they were going. Only
    a fact could be so dreamlike.
    They’re tearing down the houses
    we met and lived in,
    soon our two bodies will be all
    left standing from that era.


    We have, as they say,
    certain things in common.
    I mean: a view
    from a bathroom window
    over slate to stiff pigeons
    huddled every morning; the way
    water tastes from our tap,
    which you marvel at, letting
    it splash into the glass.
    Because of you I notice
    the taste of water,
    a luxury I might
    otherwise have missed.


    Our words misunderstand us.
    Sometimes at night
    you are my mother:
    old detailed griefs
    twitch at my dreams, and I
    crawl against you, fighting
    for shelter, making you
    my cave. Sometimes
    you’re the wave of birth
    that drowns me in my first
    nightmare. I suck the air.
    Miscarried knowledge twists us
    like hot sheets askew.


    Dead winter doesn’t die,
    it wears away, a piece of carrion
    picked clean at last,
    rained away or burnt dry.
    Our desiring does this,
    make no mistake, I’m speaking
    of fact: through mere indifference
    we could prevent it.
    Only our fierce attention
    gets hyacinths out of those
    hard cerebral lumps,
    unwraps the wet buds down
    the whole length of a stem.

    i used to perform this poem for competition and i had the hardest time keeping it together. ugggh adrienne rich how i love thee.

  2. Dearest Team Autostraddle,

    I would like to sincerely thank you for this Pure Poetry Week/couple of weeks/month/forever(I would not mind at all if this went on forever).

    I love it. I love being exposed to new things by people with good taste. You have re-kindled my love for words and how they fit together.

    Keep up the good work!

    Reverently and gratefully,


  3. I started reading Adrienne Rich my first year of college in 1989, when I was assigned to read her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. I feel it is my duty as a slightly older ladyorientedlady to share knowledge of this herstorical piece of literature. I actually took ‘freshman lit’ with the theme: gender roles in literature, which is how I got started with the bizness in the first place. :) College is such a very important situation…

    • I am so pleased to know now that adrienne rich is a poet (yes, it seems I have been hiding under a rock for a very long time). I only recently discovered Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence – I did engineering in undergrad and thus was not exposed to works of genius such as this (I believe engineers ought to do more humanities-type reading anyway… we really miss out). I feel like if I had read this paper sooner, I could have not wasted so much time thinking I was straight. So, LJ, I think it’s awesome that you are spreading the word about it, and I will, too.

      Now… to go immerse myself in her poetry…

  4. Y’ALL KNOW I READ “DIVING INTO THE WRECK” BEFORE! FUCK YES, I CANNOT WAIT TILL DIVE SEASON STARTS AGAIN.! I am saving for a drysuit, which protects you from the cold & therefore you can dive all year round.

  5. Also, this part is true:

    “the sea is not a question of power
    I have to learn alone
    to turn my body without force
    in the deep element.”

    You learn to move without having anything to push against or any normal gravity feeling, and you can’t learn it off books/computer/people. Learn by doing only, and teach yourself to kick in a way that you don’t stir up silt and blind yourself.

  6. Please write about things other than gadgets more often. <3

    (but still write about the gadgets too, obviously.)

  7. I love this one –

    The world tells me I am its creature
    I am raked by eyes brushed by hands
    I want to crawl into her for refuge lay my head
    in the space between her breast and shoulder
    abnegating power for love
    as women have done or hiding
    from power in her love like a man
    I refuse these givens the splitting
    between love and action I am choosing
    not to suffer uselessly and not to use her
    I choose to love this time for once
    with all my intelligence

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