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March 27, 2007

The Wreck and the Treasure: Images for Writing and Healing

I recently came across a poem, Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich. (I found it in Staying Alive, the anthology. You can also find it here.)

The poem is a quest poem—but it describes a different kind of quest, a kind of counterpoint to Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica. Not a quest across the water. But down.

It begins—the first six lines—with a gathering of resources:

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

It’s interesting to me how just typing these lines allows me to pay a kind of closer attention to the language than I do when I ordinarily read. It slows me down. Especially coming to that last line—the grave and awkward mask.

So, then: a book of myths, a camera, a blade, body armor, those absurd flippers, that grave and awkward mask. These are the resources for this dive. And no companions. Not this time. The speaker of the poem announces this at the end of the first stanza: she’s not doing this with a team like Cousteau—but alone.

A ladder appears.
She begins to climb down.
Down through layers.
Down through blue, then bluer, green—then black.

This is a different kind of quest.
A metaphorical quest.
A quest down through layers.
And why keep going?

In the sixth stanza, she names the reason for this particular quest:

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.

The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
And then those lines naming two companions:
the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

It seems to me that most people I talk to about quests of one sort or another need to know two things—especially for the difficult quests—the ones that involve some exploration of wreckage, some measure of sorrow. I think we need to know that the exploration itself has some meaning—a purpose. And I think we need to know that there’s some possibility—some hope—even perhaps a promise—of treasure—jewels amid or beneath the wreckage. What Arthur Frank would call the boon of the quest. There has to be some boon.

I had a writing teacher once who used to say that stories need to be bearable. One way, I think, of making stories of wreckage bearable is to figure out what the treasure is—to recognize the treasure amid the wreckage. No matter how elusive—or unexpected—no matter that the treasure doesn’t look the way we thought it would look when we finally come upon it.