To commemorate the passing of Adrienne Rich, I wanted to offer a different kind of experience: my failure to understand her canonical poem the first time I encountered it.

Let me set the stage: high school, 1987, a series of college entrance exams: SAT, ACT and some Advance Placement rigamarole. I had been in this country seven years and there I was, doing the American achievement test thing. Since I was into books, I was confident in my achievement in reading and writing, only to be informed months later by my test results that I was a mediocre reader, with a less than average English vocabulary. I scored perfectly in an Analytical test, and was duly disappointed when I found out that no admissions committee would be impressed--Verbal and Math is where it was at. But nothing hurt my feelings more than coming face to face with a poem. Oh, I will never forget that poem, “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich.

Like any high schooler, my experience with poetry was dismal--a few Shakespearean sonnets, Wordsworth, and some dash queen named Emily Dickinson. In short, nothing that informed me poetry had contemporary singers. Poetry had all been written by the dead. Fortunately, I was only heartbeats away from college, where I would learn that a whole other world of language existed. But until then I was immediately disarmed by this poem and the series of precise questions that followed, which implied that there were correct answers, nothing open-ended or left to interpretation.

When I came upon the phrase “not like Cousteau,” my world collapsed. Was this the Jacques Cousteau? I remembered his deep-sea exploits on television, watching with my grandparents as the three of us marveled at the universe he was showing us. But the explorer was not like Cousteau--he was going at it alone, without a support team. (I didn’t catch on to the possibility that this explorer might be a woman, not like Cousteau, dummy.) In any case, I thought I was on board this journey when suddenly I came across the first stanza that did me in:

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? Of all the extraordinary things to discover in the deep--sunken ships, coral reefs, hammerhead sharks, pale white fish like stowaways from another planet--there were no words. What words was he talking about? From the book of myths previously alluded to? What myths? The Brothers Grimm? When I was asked to explain what was meant by “words” I had none to fill in that blank. And then came the second stanza that sent me into another layer of darkness:

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

What in the name of gender-shifting was this? An entity that is both male and female. I pictured creatures from the sea, their androgyny, or rather their genderless forms. Was this speaker a soul, a spirit, a ghost? I pictured Patrick Duffy in Man from Atlantis, who could breathe underwater, swim like a fish with his webbed feet and hands--the only survivor from his fallen city. But clearly he was a man. The title of the television series I watched in Mexico dubbed in Spanish said so. My pre-pubescent homosexual fantasies told me so. In any case, I could not fit this poem into my frames of reference. I had no answers, right or wrong. To this day I am convinced this is why I began my college education in English 1A--the only English major who didn’t skip over the basic humanities requirement. And for decades I avoided this poem, even as I learned to appreciate Adrienne Rich.

There was something extremely rewarding then in finally facing this poem again in a time of my life when I had more knowledge of this troubled country, this troubled world; when I could understand the complexity of a speaker who was diving into the wreck as a recoverer and an activist, not hunting for new discoveries, but hunting down the ones that had been abandoned, deemed inconsequential and without value. There was something extremely rewarding in identifying with the speaker as a person whose “words” had been drowned out, whose voice was very much alive. It was up to the speaker to be a listener, and to ask such questions as: Why am I not being heard? Why do others fear what I have to say? How can I break through the silence?

When I finally read this poem, conscious of its questions and not its answers, I nearly wept with both sorrow and joy when the final stanza of the poem swirled around me and cradled me:

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.

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2012

Rigoberto González was born in Bakersfield, California and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. He is the author of several poetry books, including So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (1999), a National Poetry Series selection; Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (2006); Black Blossoms (2011); and Unpeopled Eden (2013), winner of a Lambda Literary Award. He...