In the Waiting Room

Helen M. Dennis: On "In the Waiting Room"

I shall assume that what drives the tourist is the quest for a coherent sense of the self. Tourism provides an opportunity to arrive at a stable ego identity using the unfamiliar landscape or the exotic culture as the other against which one measures and defines the self. For the romantic poet the exotic foreign location allows a construction of the self that the familiar and domestic has apparently denied. Consider for a moment "In the Waiting Room" where the young Elizabeth does not want to be identified with Aunt Consuela:

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities— boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts— held us all together or made us all just one? (161)

The quest for a sense of self, or a reassurance that one is anyone, involves an investigation of the "similarities", that is, what is common to humanity, what constitutes human identity and in particular, female identity? This poem also articulates a resistance to female and familial identity: she confuses herself with her aunt—whose voice screams?—but she does not want to be confused with her aunt. Nor does she want to be the women in National Geographic. Moreover these lines question the very notion of a unified whole, a common humanity. I also suggest that the movement of this poem enacts a characteristic version of the sublime with a three phase progress from an initial state of equilibrium into a state of terror and confusion brought about by the unsettling eruption of a sublime idea, to end with the mind's reappropriation of equilibrium, though on a higher or transcendent level. "In the Waiting Room" recalls a childhood moment of terror about individual and human identity and shapes it into a characteristic expression of the "sublime".

from "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "In the Waiting Room" (2)

While "The Bight" may be among the clearest, most sustained instances of the aesthetic containment of the aggressive in the matter-of-fact, elsewhere, in both her poetry and prose, Bishop addresses related processes of the mind's striving to find ways to preserve its equilibrium in the face of inner- or externally-derived attack. The question of the origins of the aggressive impulse and its object is reiterated in both the late poem "In the Waiting Room" and the prose narrative, "In the Village". Although others, most notably Lee Edelman, have written at length on "In the Waiting Room", I wish to focus on the dynamics specifically associated with the handling of aggression. In this poem, the almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth passes the time in the dentist's waiting room reading the National Geographic and "carefully" studying photographs that represent various kinds and consequences of aggression:

The inside of a volcano, black, and full of ashes; then it was spilling over in rivulets of fire. . . . .    . . . .    . . . A dead man slung on a pole —"Long Pig," the caption said. Babies with pointed heads wound round and round with string; black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. (159)

What she witnesses in the magazine is a prelude to what she hears:

Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain —Aunt Conseulo's voice— not very loud or long. (160)

The confusion surrounding the origins of the cry, whether it comes from the girl or the aunt, or both, initiates a vertiginous loss of identity. The cry results from an act of clinical performance that might be construed as a form of prophylactic aggression situated in an oral site. The cry emerges from inside an identification that the girl assumes with the aunt. To offset the vertiginous feelings that issue from this fusion of identities, the girl says to herself, "three days / and you'll be seven years old". She inserts the language of fact between the conclusion precipitated by her perceptions of aggression, both visual and aural, and the sense of individuality she strives to maintain. Almost lost to the uncanny experience of merger between herself and her aunt, between herself and the images in the National Geographic—something pulls her back—the "cry of pain . . . could have / got loud and worse but hadn't". On the verge of being overcome by sensation,

The waiting room was bright and too hot. It was sliding beneath a big black wave, another, and another: (161)

the self is returned to ongoing reality, to the matter-of-fact. The process of recuperation is silent, transpiring in the space between the poem's closing stanzas:

Then I was back in it. The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918. (161)

Whatever psychic processes are enacted within that trans-stanzaic silence, the outcome is a return to the quotidian, the facticity of dailiness that orients the speaker in her world. Aggression and destruction which have carried the speaker to the brink of dissolution are now contained enough to permit the reemergence of identity, the continuation of ordinary consciousness. The mystery surrounding this mental process remains unsolved. What substitutes for that solution is the repetition of a sequence of facts that establishes a reassuring connection with external circumstance. Although the poem excludes any explanation of how this transition is made, the verbal testimony of the final stanza itself offers a kind of answer. For, it is the world of the matter-of-fact that stands in for other, more disruptive, potentially catastrophic realities. Bishop's oft-noted devotion to the matter-of-fact, when contextualized psychoanalytically, might be seen as a willed orientation toward the external as an act of defence against the blurring of ego boundaries. Paradoxically, attentiveness directed toward the external enables the writerly ego simultaneously to align itself empathic ally with the outer world while the iteration of facts, the very process of naming, inscribes a continual sense of difference between those facts and the imagining subject. Thus, in an ironic gesture of self-assertion, the poet strengthens self-other boundaries through an investment in attending to outward fact.

from "Bishop and the Matter of Fact." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Copyright © 2000.

Renée R. Curry: On "In the Waiting Room"

In Bishop's final book, Geography III, her famous identity poem, "In the Waiting Room," not only addresses the discovery of one's gender, but it also includes Bishop among women of color. The persona of the poem is young and not quite certain that she wants to belong to this world of "breasts." The girl understands little about women, but she does discern that the world of women, with whom she is suddenly identified, includes many women of many colors, including white.

While waiting for her Aunt Consuela in the dentist's office, the young Elizabeth scans through a National Geographic. She surveys among the pictures some black, naked women with interesting necks:

wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying.                         (Complete Poems 159)

While she is reading, her Aunt Consuela lets out an "Oh!" of pain, and the young Elizabeth of the poem experiences a moment of sheer empathy with the aunt. She empathizes in multiple confusing ways: with the pain, the fact of Aunt Consuela's femaleness, with the family sound of the voice. The sensation is overwhelming and causes a feeling of vertigo for Elizabeth.

By talking to herself about her upcoming birthday, the child stops the swirling sensation of discovering her connectedness to women, to a particular family, and to pain. She contemplates the situation and questions:

But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of Them. Why should you be one, too?                     (Complete Poems 160)

Her question, "why," occurs again, with a greater sense of the similarities:

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities— boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts— held us all together or made us all just one?                     (Complete Poems 161)

She cannot quite put her finger on the similarities, but Bishop makes clear in the poem that the persona recognizes the similarities regardless of the awfulness she ascribes to the breasts themselves. This coming of age poem is an important signifier in terms of understanding Bishop's ideological framework regarding whiteness and connections among women.

Clearly, at least for the moment of this poem, and at least beyond the initial awful surprise at the observation of the black breast, this white female child does recognize herself as connected to women of color. The frightening part of this recognition comes when the child then feels herself sliding beneath a series of black waves. To feel remotely connected to women of color, to black women, especially by virtue of femaleness, brings on a feeling of being drowned in blackness:

The waiting room was bright and too hot. It was sliding beneath a big black, wave, another, and another.                     (Complete Poems 161)

Sadly, Bishop recognizes the connection but also expresses the workings of her imagination, which claim that any connection to blacks feels like suffocating, like being smothered in blackness. Recalling "The Imaginary Iceberg" and Dyer's claim that whites associate themselves with mountaintops and purer forms of oxygen, "In the Waiting Room" reaffirms that connections with blackness cause difficulty in breathing and threaten death.

Bishop cannot locate a consistent ideological base from which to derive comfort regarding this issue of race. She understands the need for change and connection, but the attempts at connection are not long lasting or they threaten to overwhelm. 

from White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness. Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renée R. Curry.

C. K. Doreski: On "In the Waiting Room"

"In the Waiting Room" may be seen as a prelapsarian poem of anticipation of that social state that precedes the acceptance of received namings; "Crusoe in England" may be read as a postlapsarian meditation on the originating power of naming and renaming. In reinventing the social world that connects the two, she seems willing to reconsider all forms of "name" appropriation: place, family, sex, generation, things. Discovering a world where (as Stevens found) "Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby / Might well have been German or Spanish," she then rejects all such forms of naming as well as (what Foucault calls) "author construction." Each poem reenacts "birth, procreation, and death" as a debate between naming and unnaming, the loss imposed by a social (i.e., authorial) identity.

In 1961, Bishop wrote "The Country Mouse," a posthumously published memoir dedicated to her childhood return to Worcester, Massachusetts, after a lengthy stay with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia. Were it not for its startlingly revealing conclusion, the memoir, in spite of its abundance of details, would suffer from (by Bishop's own standards) insignificance. In the final paragraphs, however, which constitute the nucleus of "In the Waiting Room," Bishop begins to trouble over the obvious: the social obligation of being human. Having been jolted into awareness of her adoptive family's class status (hers was a family with servants), she recalls with equal sensitivity the strangeness of being a human being. As she waits for her aunt in the dentist's waiting room:

I felt . . . myself. In a few days it would be my seventh birthday. I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic. I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. "You're in for it now," something said. How had I got tricked into such a false position? I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely every once in a while.

The history of identity is bound to the memory of its occasion. The response is visceral, not intellectual:

"You are you," something said. "How strange you are, inside looking out. You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be you forever." It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The fact of this prerational recognition scene resides in the primacy of childhood identity. The duplicity the child hears and sees in the adult world can only be named by those understudy pronouns: I and you. While dogs, trees, and even servants have names, this as yet unnamed child wrestles with but a taxonomic classification: human.

"In the Waiting Room" marks Bishop's return to these issues of naming and unnaming, reading and writing, sounding and hearing. Though descriptive, the poem depends less on physical detail and more upon a dialogue between the unnamed (socially unrestricted) self—"I"—and the named (socially restricted)—"an I." The child initially finds security in proper names: "Worcester, Massachusetts" and "Aunt Consuelo." The certainty fades with the appearance of the intrusive, indefinite pronoun: "It was winter. It got dark / early" [my emphasis]. Bishop will rely upon the ambiguity of "it" and its corresponding reluctance or inability to name throughout the poem.

Left alone, the child "I" sees and reads the named National Geographic. Its "studied photographs" reveal an unpredictable, eruptive (prelapsarian) landscape. Literacy fails, except as an escape route, where metaphor is concerned. Investigating scenes from this magazine, she catalogues that which she can name: volcano erupting, Osa and Martin Johnson. Properly attired people bear names: "Osa and Martin Johnson"; dead people lose their names: "—'Long Pig,' the caption said." Orality and literacy compete for the child's attention, each seductive in its way. But she mishears what "the caption sa[ys]": "A dead man slung on a pole / --"Long Pig." Mimicking the instability of spoken language and substituting a euphemism for a proper name, the conversational caption confuses the earnest student, who fails to understand that the dead man is here regarded as a food source.

The verbal unknown occasions further confusion as the child’s eye traces the physical, sexual uncertainties of uncovered women. So foreign are the native unnamed women "with necks / wound round and round with wire" that the child "reads" right through them: "I read it straight right straight through. / I was too shy to stop" [emphasis added]. Unable to name, the child resorts to the tense comfort of the unnamed: "it." She retreats from the shifting planes of unnamed, unnamable uncertainty to the fixity of that which bears a name: "the cover: / the yellow margins, the date." Such is the force of Dickinson's notch in the maelstrom.

Unable to read her way into the larger constellation of human beings, the child nevertheless recognizes the sounded family identity when she hears it. Like the auditor in "The Country Mouse," this child hears from the inside out. History and memory fuse, creating a new identity for her:

What took me completely by surprise was that it was me: my voice, in my mouth. Without thinking at all I was my foolish aunt, I—we—were falling, falling, our eyes glued to the cover of the National Geographic, February, 1918.

The intensity of this "it" draws upon the accumulated chain of reference: "winter," "dark early," "Babies with pointed heads," "horrifying breasts," and Aunt Consuelo's "oh! of pain." Acceding to the social demands, the effect of her aunt's voic,. the child involuntarily discovers her own collective voice: I becomes we. Dates, like names or Aunt Consuelo's voice, momentarily pierce the surface of the "cold, blue-black space"—the sea of habit threatening the child's consciousness. She has lost perceived autonomy even as she has gained a social identity.

Cautiously authorial, the child reads this new self as a mode of being. For the moment the discovery is personal, familial. This is not an attempt to place a "Bishop" in context; rather, it is an opportunity to feel a "self" move forward and backward into genealogy, into time:

But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.

Unlike the familial significance attributed to Lowell by Bishop, the effectiveness of Bishop's self-reading derives from the strategic use of the second person. As if to demonstrate her presence in the text, she removes her self from it long enough to proclaim a social identity, to name her self. This somewhat grudging sensation, verified spontaneously by the child's reaction to her aunt's cry, suggests the child's plight as it would seem from the outside. It recalls the Stevensian self: "Detect[ing] the sound of a voice that doubles its own." However "unlikely" or "strange" these binding "similarities" seem to the child they are the social facts of her life. Though they seem to her unauthorized, breasts, boots, the National Geographic, and the family voice nonetheless constitute homogenizing social realities. By adhering to the laws of pronominal reference, Bishop intensifies the almost Ibsenlike (recall the Button-molder of Peer Gynt) threat to an artist's emerging identity.

While "In the Waiting Room" has been routinely read as a poem of juvenile terror, isolation, and marginality, none of those readings account for the remarkable counterforce of the solitary "Me-Myself-I," the artist's isolated yet assertive self. Even if the unnamed self (as seen from the inside out) threatens to fail or consume, it remains the volatile poetry voice for Bishop. She may require (what Beckett calls) a "temporal specification"—"fifth / of February, 1918"—to allow her "to measure the days that separate [her] from that menace" (that which threatens identity). The "falling off" enacted in this poem is the fall into social identity, restrictive or inaccurate naming. The alternative seems to be the "big black wave" of annihilation or namelessness. To be "back in it" is to survive with a social surface—name, age, gender, place—at odds with the continually unnamed self. "The War was on" presages a career intensely committed to slipping the yoke of social identity and changing the rules of the name game.

The child of "In the Waiting Room" advances with uncertainty from the passivity of reader to the tentative aggressiveness of writer—to the authority of authorship. The socializing power of language itself lures the unnamed I into the realm of a given and feminine name—and perilously into the beyond of collective, pronominal identity: "one of them." This rush of potential identities refuses to pause at the brink of authorial privilege—Elizabeth + Bishop—and instead accelerates into the swirl of them. Refusing even gender specificity (recalling that in her memoir, Bishop ends with the more general "Why was I a human being?"), retaining no element of uniqueness, this identity is as good as none.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Elizabeth Dodd: On "In the Waiting Room"

While there is a quiet, even suppressed presence of homoeroticism in some of Bishop's work - most notably in some uncollected poems - for the poem Edelman examines in greatest detail, "In the Waiting Room," a study of lesbian awakening does not appear to be the most fruitful reading of this poem. . . what the speaker, Elizabeth, reads in the copy of National Geographic is more than the pictures and descriptions of naked women, but also the possibility of cannibalism and decoration of babies through mutilation.

Osa and Martin Johnson dressed in riding breeches, laced boots, and pith helmets A dead man slung on a pole --"Long Pig," the caption said. Babies with pointed heads wound round and round with string; black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. I read it straight through. I was too shy to stop. And then I looked at the cover: the yellow margins, the date.

Certainly the poem shows gender awareness here and later when Elizabeth says

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities-- boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts-- held us all together or made us all just one?

Yet the gender awareness is tied up with the larger awareness of humanity in general; the young Elizabeth is not really discovering her sexuality so much as she is discovering her own participation in the human race -including her gender identity. The result, therefore, is an epiphany on a larger order than awakening of sexual orientation, and the poem's subject is larger than a careful encoding of lesbian identity. It does not exclude the connections among human beings that are homosexual in nature, nor does it those that are heterosexual. In fact, the poem does not seem interested in excluding human relations at all but rather on noting their peculiar, "unlikely" tenuousness. The poem does not close, after all, focusing on those breasts but rather on a deadly political issue:

The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918.

This is quite unlike, for example, Adrienne Rich's poem "Trying to Talk with a Man," where the imagery of nuclear bomb-testing is not the major issue at stake but is rather a trope for understanding the combative relations between the sexes. For Bishop, World War I suggests a danger, as does nuclear testing for Rich. But that danger is not one that arises because of gender-identification or sex roles, unlike the "danger" Rich specifically mentions. Instead, it is the possibility of violence done by any human being to another, on an individual, tribal, or global level: a woman to her baby, a man to another man, etc. Bishop wishes to make a large suggestion about the perplexity - the "unlikeliness" -of being human. And she wants to be sure to make it through the perception of an individual, an "Elizabeth."

from The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "In the Waiting Room"

Two poems from Bishop's last volume, Geography III, by means of apparently contrasting yet structurally similar experiences. "In the Waiting Room" and "The Moose" both explore the self’s relation to others as they articulate a moment that interrupts the continuous act of sublimation that enables us to preserve an ongoing constitutive identity. In each poem, the crisis of that interruption is resolved through a gesture of reunion with life beyond the self that allows identity to reconstitute itself in a recognizable form. These poems delineate an ecstasis that recalls the vertiginous psychic shifts of the experiential Sublime. "In the Waiting Room," strangers isolated by anxiety and anonymity come together, their status provisional, for they are on the outside waiting to go in. In "The Moose" the liminal is again invoked as strangers embark on a communal journey only to await their arrival at various destinations. Against these provisional environments, Bishop introduces images of family. The bus passengers in "The Moose" catch a glimpse of a woman shaking out a tablecloth. Anonymous voices float softly from the back of the bus (the recesses of the mind?) to create a soothing lullaby of conversation that retells the history of people's lives. But the family is not the narrator's own; if the recollections draw her back into her past, it is through the aura of remembrance created by others' voices.

Within "In the Waiting Room," familial forms assume a more terrifying guise. While she waits for her aunt to emerge from the dentist's chair, "Elizabeth" reads an article in National Graphic where human images assume macabre, distorted forms:

A dead man slung on a pole --"Long Pig," the caption said. Babies with pointed heads wound round and round with string; black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying.

What is meant to pass the time becomes a rite of passage as the seven-year-old "Elizabeth" is led into the abyss of a self she had not earlier recognized as her own:

Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain --Aunt Consuelo's voice-- not very loud or long.

........................

. . .What took me completely by surprise was that it was me: my voice, in my mouth. Without thinking at all I was my foolish aunt, I – we - were falling, falling, our eyes glued to the cover of the National Geographic, February, 1918.

The child counters the vertigo that accompanies her faltering sense of self with facts, with information about the external world and contemporary events. What has threatened her perception of identity can be traced, at least for its proximate cause, to the grotesque pictorial representations of man, woman, and child. What so disturbs "Elizabeth" that she loses the sense of self one takes for granted in order to live in the world? Lee Edelman addresses this issue:

Though only in the course of reading the magazine does "Elizabeth" perceive the inadequacy of her positioning as a reader, Bishop's text implies from the outset the insufficiency of any mode of interpretation that claims to release the meaning it locates "inside" a text by asserting its own ability to speak from a position of mastery "outside" of it. For this reason everything that "Elizabeth"encounters in the pages of the National Geographic serves to disturb the stability of a binary opposition.

This disturbance incorporates, moreover, a questioning of the internalized structures and cultural codes that inform the interpretation of experience. If Bishop's sexual poetics more generally deconstructs the binary oppositions of heterosexist discourse, "In the Waiting Room" addresses a related epistemological concern that arises from Bishop's destabilization of the distinctions by which persons organize information about themselves and their world. Edelman continues, "Though Bishop's text, then, has challenged the stability of distinctions between inside and outside, male and female, literal and figurative, human and bestial, young 'Elizabeth' reads on from her own position of liminality in the waiting room until she confronts, at last, an image of women and their infants: . . ." By focusing on "Elizabeth's" vexed response to the horrific image of maternal sexuality, Edelman introduces us to the larger question of female sexuality in Bishop's work as he urges us to hear the "oh!" that "emanates from inside the dentist's office, and from inside the waiting room, and from inside the National Geoqraphic, and from inside 'In the Waiting Room.' It is a cry that cries out against any attempt to clarify its confusions because it is a female cry - a cry of the female - that recognizes the attempts to clarify it as attempts to put it in its place." That voice of protest emanating from an epistemological uncertainty, echoes throughout Bishop's work in poems that reengage the mediations between rhetoric and sexual identity. The fall away from awareness of distinctions disrupts the assurance of a constitutive identity, and the restoration of that identity through the intervention of the external is akin to the final stage of the experiential Sublime, wherein the poet's identity, momentarily repressed by a power felt to be greater than and external to it, reemerges. That the experiential Sublime should, in this poem, be so closely linked to the voice of female sexuality and the overthrowing of culturally encoded identities reaffirms the alternative aspect of the psychological Sublime for the woman poet. Gender is at the center of any such aesthetic crisis, and the eroticization of literary categories serves the function of deidealizing the work of the human imagination.

from Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl

Vernon Shetley: On "In the Waiting Room"

How had I come to be here,

like them, and overhear

a cry of pain that could have

got loud and worse but hadn’t?

"How had I come to be … like them?" we may read this sentence as asking, and the child seems to expend an almost petulant energy in the various repetitions of this question. A number of critics have interpreted the burden of the poem as the child’s sense of "connectedness," to use Bonnie Costello’s term (see Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991], p. 119). Critics like Lois Cucullu and Lee Edelman imply a transformation of this sense into a feeling of solidarity along gender lines. The poem’s persistent refusal to interpret itself, however, makes available another attitude toward the feelings of aversion and distress it so powerfully generates. In a draft of "the Country Mouse," the child remarked to herself, "I was in for it now … I would get old and fat like that woman opposite me" (Elizabeth Bishop papers, Vassar College Library). When the poet asks, "What similarities … /made us all just one?" this "just" indicates that the thought entails a sense of diminishment, one that makes the child resist this levelling equivalence of self and other. The young Elizabeth might be seen as rejecting with all her energies the horrifying knowledge that she is like the people with whom she shares the waiting room. This knowledge is presented in imagery that resembles that of "At the Fishhouses," where knowledge is presented as a burning, uninhabitable liquid: "The waiting room was bright / and too hot. It was sliding / beneath a big black wave, / another, and another." Indeed. The entire world seems to become insufficiently distinct and separate, as the "night and slush" outside echo the "big black wave" breaking inside.

 

From Vernon Shetley, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Silences," in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 55-56

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.

Lee Edelman: On "In the Waiting Room"

Commentaries on "In the Waiting Room" tend to agree that the poem presents a young girl's moment of awakening to the separations and the bonds among human beings, to the forces that shape individual identity through the interreleated recognitions of community and isolation.

[. . . .]

What, one might ask, is so strange about critical agreement on the literal events that take place within the poem?

One response to such a question might begin by observing that the text itself seems to undermine the stability of the literal. Certainly the poem appears to appropriate—and to ground itself in—the particulars of a literal reality or truth. Bishop takes pains, for instance, to describe the contents of the magazine read by the young girl in the waiting room. Not only does she evoke in detail its pictures of volcanoes and of "black, naked women," but she specifies the particular issue of the magazine, identifying it as the National Geographic of February, 1918. But Bishop, as Jerome Mazzaro puts it, "tampers with the actual contents." While that issue of the magazine does indeed contain an article on volcanoes—lavishly titled "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: An Account of the Discovery and Exploration of the Most Wonderful Volcanic Region in the World"—it offers no images of "Babies with pointed heads," no pictures of "black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire" (p. 159). In an interview with George Starbuck, Bishop, responding to the critics who noticed the factual "error" in her text, declared: "My memory had confused two 1918 issues of the Geographic. Not having seen them since then, I checked it out in the New York Public Library. In the February issue there was an article, 'The Valley of 10,000 Smokes,' about Alaska that I'd remembered, too. But the African things, it turned out, were in the next issue, in March." Bishop's clarification only underscores her insistence on literal origins—and her wariness of her own imaginative powers. For the curious reader will discover what might have been suspected all along: the "African things" are not to be found in the March issue of the National Geographic, either. In fact, that issue has no essay about Africa at all.

With this in mind we are prepared for the warning that Alfred Corn offers the unsuspecting reader. He notes that, just as the picture essay Bishop describes "is not to be found in the February 1918 National Geographic," so "Anyone checking to see whether Miss Bishop's aunt was named Consuelo probably ought to be prepared for a similar thwarting of curiosity." In the face of this, one might well pose the question that Corn then frames: "If the facts are 'wrong,' why did Bishop make such a point of them in the poem?" Or, to put the question another way, toward what end does Bishop attempt to appropriate a literal grounding for her poem if that poem insists on fracturing the literality on which it positions itself? Whatever answer one might posit in response to such a question, the very fact that the poem invites us to ask it, the very fact that the poem revises simplistic conceptions of "fact" or literality may answer objections to my remark that there is something strange about the critics' agreement on the literal events that take place within the text.

But a new objection will surely be raised, accusing me of conflating two different senses of the "literal," or even of using "literal" in a way that is itself not strictly literal. While there may be questions, the objectors will insist, about the text's fidelity to the facts outside of it—questions, that is, about the literal truth of the text—those questions do not prevent us from articulating literally what happens within that text. Whether or not Bishop had a real Aunt Consuelo, there can be no doubt, they will argue, that Vendler and Estess and Wood are correct in asserting that, literally, within the poem, and as one of its crucial events, Aunt Consuelo cries out in pain from inside the dentist’s office. And yet I intend not only to cast doubt upon that central event, but to suggest that the poem itself is less interested in the event than in the doubts about it, and that the critics’ certainties distort the poem’s insistence on confusion.

[. . . .]

This, then, is "Elizabeth"'s situation after her exercise in reading: sitting in the dentist's office while her aunt receives treatment inside, she looks at the cover of the National Geographic and tries to hold on to the solid ground of literality outside the abyss of textuality she has discovered within it. In doing so, she silences the voice of her own internal desire and conforms to the socially determined role that her shyness forces her to play. At the same time, however, she recognizes, as a result of her reading, the inadequacy of the inside/outside polarity that underlies each of her tensions—tensions that mount until they no longer admit of repression or constraint: "Suddenly, from inside, / came an oh! of pain."

With this we come back to where we began—back to the question of the voice and the question of the place from which the voice originates. But we return with a difference to the extent that the critical desire to locate or to define or to frame any literal "inside" for that voice to emerge from has been discredited as an ideological blindness, a hierarchical gesture. There is no inside in this poem that can be distinguished from its outside: the cry emanates from inside the dentist's office, and from inside the waiting room, and from inside the National Geographic, and from inside "In the Waiting Room." It is a cry that cries out against any attempt to clarify its confusions because it is a female cry—a cry of the female—that recognizes the attempts to clarify it as attempts to put it in its place. It is an "oh!" that refuses to be readily deciphered because it knows that if it is read it must always be read as a cipher—as a zero, a void, or a figure in some predetermined social text. Those critics, then, who read the poem by trying to place the cry, effect, instead, a denial of that cry which is a cry of displacement—a cry of the female refusal of position in favor of disposition. As a figural subversion, it wages war against the reduction of woman to the status of a literal figure, an oxymoronic entity constrained to be interpreted within the patriarchal text. It is against that text that the cry wages war, becomes a war cry to unleash the textuality that rips the fabric of the cultural text. To conclude, then, is only to urge a beginning, to urge that we attend to this cry as a cry of female textuality, a cry that links "Elizabeth" to her "foolish" aunt and to the tormented mother in Bishop's story, "In the Village." In this way we can approach the poem's cry, in Stevens's words, as the "cry of its occasion" and begin to engage the issues of gender and constraint that are so deeply involved in Bishop's story of "oh!"

from "The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop's 'In the Waiting Room.'" Contemporary Literature 26.2 (Summer 1985): 179-196. 

Jeredith Merrin: On "In the Waiting Room"

In the Waiting Room," for example, carries simplicity of language to its extreme in an extremely unnerving situation. Very carefully, in the most prosaic phrases, times and places are labelled: "In Worcester, Massachusetts"; "I said to myself. three days/and you'll be seven years old"; "it was still the fifth/of February, 1918." In one way, the language of this poem seems to suggest that one can make the terrifying and strange normal and orderly by putting ordinary words in ordinary places. In another way, it suggests (by its halting, anxious flatness and its flashes of menacing imagery) that just beneath the individual attempt at rational arrangement or domestication is intractable otherness, ready to erupt like the volcano pictured in the dentist's office copy of the National Geographic. The child in the waiting room appears orphaned (no mother or father enters the picture, only her "foolish aunt"), and this makes her attempt to domesticate the strange particularly poignant--even more so when we remember that Elizabeth Bishop herself was brought up not by her parents but by an assortment of relations. The grave and literate child in this poem, like the oddly whimsical and studiously plainspoken adult in "Crusoe in England," is obviously an autobiographical figure. And "The War" mentioned at the end of "In the Waiting Room" evokes Bishop's embattled poetic stance, just as Crusoe's fashioning of makeshift entertainments and tools suggests her poetic fashioning. [. . .] [T]he almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth in "In the Waiting Room" experiences not a Wordsworthian sense of cosmic embrace, but rather the alternating terrors of a centripetal force that squashes her together with other people (her aunt, whose scream "from inside" seems to be her own, the woman in the National Geographic Magazine with "awful hanging breasts") along with a centrifugal force that threatens to spin her off "into cold, blue-black space." As the emphasized name later in the poem makes clear, the precocious female minor in "In the Waiting Room"--with her sensitivity to language and interest in reading, her acute powers of observation and her anxiety about growing up a woman--is a prefiguration of the adult poet or "minor female Wordsworth." Elizabeth Bishop looks back in this poem (in what will be her final book) on her anxious and overwhelmed child self with still-fresh empathy, but with the assurance and control of the accomplished artist.

From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.

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