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.


Title Joanne Feit Diehl: On "In the Waiting Room" (2) 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 Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery
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