Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Poem: In the Waiting Room

I love the poem In the Waiting Room, by Elizabeth Bishop, published in the 1970s. I don't really get it though. I mean I could get through an English exam with some analysis about the realization of the Other and of separation between oneself and others (notice my cultural studies-ish capitalization distinction there!) and a dash of gender/bodies/pain/social waiting, etc., but really, I just don't feel like I get it.

The reason I bring it up here, other than to bring it to your attention if you haven't come across it yet, is to talk about its essayistic quality of watching a mind process things. The narrator is a child, and has a child's blunt and and keen observations coupled with the cloudiness of mind that we all have, whether due to immaturity, or fear, or bias, or lack of information. This girl is curious, and questioning, and she doesn't come to any real answer to her questions, any more than I can answer what this poem means to me.

I also like the ending of this poem, as it goes from heady, massive, disorienting ideas back into the grounding specifics of time and place: Worcester, Feb. 5, 1918. Although, of course, there is a war on, and what can be more a source of questioning and disorientation than that.

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
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 right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. 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.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

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?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely". . .
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?

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

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.


  1. I never got this poem, and I DID write a paper about it back in 11th grade!

  2. Lisa, you should dig up the paper and we'll post it.

  3. Ha, I probably ceremoniously dumped it in a trash can at the end of the year. I feel like a horrible, horrible person admitting this, but... I just don't like poetry. Not even a little bit.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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