Betsy Erkkila

Betsy Erkkila: On "In the Waiting Room"

On the broadest level, "In the Waiting Room," like other Bishop poems, inscribes the terrifying instability of the "I" and individual identity as the traditional bounds between inside and outside, self and world collapse into mere boundlessness and flux: "Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?," the child asks, as the waiting room begins "sliding / beneath a big black, wave, / another and another." But the poem also registers the girlchild’s terror and resistance as she experiences her identification with other women as a fall into the oppression and constraints of gender – signified by her "foolish aunt" and "those awful hanging breasts" she sees in the National Geographic as she reads and waits in the dentist’s office. In words that adumbrate Bishop’s later refusal to be categorized and anthologized as a woman poet and her lifelong friendship and struggle with Marianne Moore, the child’s terror registers Bishop’s own desire for distinction and difference and her simultaneous fear of having her historically specific "I" lost and absorbed in the sexual identity she shared with other women – including Marianne Moore.

 

from Betsy Erkkila, "Differences that Kill: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore," Chapter 4 in The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History and Discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 150.

Betsy Erkkila: On "The Fish"

[Erkkila is comparing Marianne Moore’s "The Fish" to Bishop’s poem.]

Whereas Moore’s "Fish" emphasizes the product and meaning of observation, Bishop’s "Fish" foregrounds the process of observation and the essential gap between subject, representation, and world. Moore appropriates the fish into an imaginative order that gives rise to ethical insight. Bishop begins with an act of appropriation – "I caught a tremendous fish" – but ends by returning the fish to the experiential flux from which the fish, ver "vision," and the poem arise. The ultimate focus of Moore’s poem is aesthetic and moral, revealing a natural providential order of permanence and value. The focus of Bishop’s poem is epistemological and visionary, suggesting temporality, transcience, and the subjectivity of value. If Moore’s poem is "about" the values of adaptability, endurance and natural heroism, Bishop’s poem is "about" the experience of living in an alien, mutable and ultimately mystifying world. Like her vision of Darwin – "his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown" [as quoted by Anne Stevenson] – Bishop’s Moore-like concentration on the object slips "giddily" off into the unknown, the strange, the surreal, unfixing traditional notions of a bounded self and world and collapsing the traditional distinction between conscious and unconscious, subject and object, self and world.

 

From Betsy Erkkila, "Differences that Kill: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore,: Chapter 4 in The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History and Discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 122-123.