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


Title Joanne Feit Diehl: On "In the Waiting Room" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne Feit Diehl Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Women Poets and the American Sublime
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