In the Waiting Room – Elizabeth Bishop

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From a broader viewpoint, “In the Waiting Room,” written by Elizabeth Bishop, brings to the fore the uncertainty of the “I” and the autonomy as connected to the old-fashioned limits of the inside and outside of a body. This poem reflects on the reaction of a young girl waiting for Aunt Consuelo in the waiting room where they went to see a dentist. She takes up the National Geographic Magazine and stares at the photographs. We are taken into the mind of a child who, at just six years of age, is mesmerized and yet depressed by photos in the magazine. With full awareness of her surrounding, her aunt screams, and she gets conveyed to a different place emotionally. From this point on, we can see the girl’s altering emotions with awareness of becoming a woman soon and a part of the entire human populace. This, however, as captured by Bishop, is not easy especially when we put seeing a dentist into perspective. By blending literal as well as figurative language, we gain an intriguing understanding of coming of age.

The National Geographic magazine helps the speaker (Elizabeth) to interact with the world outside her own. The magazine by virtue of its exploratory nature exposes her to places and things she has never known. Like many people from the Western world, she is perplexed and but sees that her world is not all there is. From line 14-35, Elizabeth sees pictures of a volcano, a dead man, and women without clothes. At six years, it is improbable that this something she has ever seen. This experience alone brings her outside what she has always thought it’s the only world. In lines 50-53, Elizabeth sees herself and her aunt falling through space and what they see in common is the cover of the magazine. This in itself abounds the idea that the magazine has a unique power over them. Lines 77-83 tell us of an Elizabeth keen to find out the similarities that bring people together. She is trying to see the bond between herself, her aunt, the people in the room where she is as well as those people in the magazine. From the exposure to other cultures, we see a new Elizabeth who has a keen interest in people other than herself and makes her ask questions about life that she has never thought of before.

The undressed black women that Elizabeth sees in the National Geographic have a strong impact on her. She claims that they horrify her but yet she cannot help looking away from them. She keeps appraising and looking at the prints. Of importance is the fact that they are mature, of a different racial background and without clothes. As she looks at them, it is easy to see the worry in Elizabeth. The differences between her and them are very clear but so are the similarities. As she grows up, she seems to understand that her body will change too and that she will grow breasts. It is also worth to see that she could be attracted to fellow women out of curiosity and this is an experience that she is afraid of. In line 28-31, Elizabeth tells of women, with coils around their neckline, and she says they appear like light bulbs. In a way, she is trying to connect them with that which she is familiar with. She also describes their breasts as horrifying – meaning that she was afraid of them, maybe because they express female adulthood or even maternity. From lines 77-81, we find the concern of Elizabeth in black women who make her afraid. By describing their mammary glands as “awful hanging breasts”, it appears she is trying to comprehend how she shares the world with human beings so different from herself. As compared to being just traumatized, it appears she is trying to derive a certain meeting point.

When Aunt Consuelo shrieks, she says “Oh!” – an expression of pain. This makes Elizabeth see how much her affiliation with other people is, that we grow when feel and empathize in other people’s suffering. Lines 36-47 declare the moment Aunt Consuelo cries “Oh” from the office of the dentist. Elizabeth after a while realizes that this cry could actually be her own. In this flash of a moment, she and Consuelo become the same thing. Despite very brief, this expression of pain has a great impact on the young girl. From lines 86-89, Elizabeth begins to think of the pain in a different manner. It could have been much terrible. She seems a bit gloomy and this confirms to us she must be seeing a worse side to this pain.

The coming together of people is also expressed by togetherness in the poem (Bowen 475). Elizabeth is confronted with things that scare and perplex her. She associates black people with things that are black such as volcanoes and waves. Given that she has never seen or met such people before, and at her age of six years, her reaction is completely justifiable. Her words show an individual who is both attracted and repelled by Africans shown in the magazine. In lines 17-19, the interior of a volcano is black. She is afraid of such a creepy, shadowy place and of the likelihood of the volcano bursting forth and spattering all over the folios in the magazine. The breasts of the African women as discussed upset her. In line 56-59, we see her imagining she is falling into a “blue-black space” which most likely represents an unknown. What can someone learn from a new place as that? In lines 91-93, she can see the waiting room in which she is “sliding” above and underneath black waves. It is just as if she is sinking to an unknown emptiness.

Bishop utilizes vertical imagery a lot. There is a lot of dramatic movement in her poem and this kind of presses a panic button. This results in upward and downward plunges that bring out the likeliness of fire and water. These motifs are repeated throughout the poem. When she says:

“then it was rivulets spilling over in rivulets of fire.”

Here we have an image of an eruption. In this case, we can imagine an intense rising gush.

When she says in another instance that:

“It was sliding beneath a big black wave another, and another.”

We see here another vertical movement. It is possible to visualize waves rolling downwards and this also lengthens this motif. Bishop uses this to help readers to fathom a moment when a mental upheaval takes place. The mind gets to get a sudden new awakening and a new understanding erupts. This motif takes us down to waves and here, there is a feeling of sinking that Bishop creates. This ceaseless dropping shows the vulnerability of feeling overwhelmed by the comprehension, understanding, and appreciation of the strength, misperception, and agony of that new awareness.

Tone has also been applied to help us synthesize the feelings and changes that the speaker undergoes (Engel 302). At the beginning of the poem, she is tranquil, then as the poem continues becomes inquisitive and towards the end, she is confused and even panicky as she is held hostage by this new realization. In the long run, as the poem winds up, she relaxes and the tone is restful again.

We also have other styles used in this poem. We see metaphors and allusion in the poem.

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

“Then I was back in it. The War was on.”

“…and it was still the fifth of February 1918”

From these above statements, we can allude that the National Geographic Magazine was there to help us appreciate the time frame in the occurred. The waiting room could stand for America as she waited to see what would transpire in the war. The war could parallel itself to the dentist’s office and in particular with reference to how children fear going there. When we connect these ideas, they allude to the idea that Aunt Consuelo was a woman who desired to join the army and fight for her country.

In conclusion, Bishop’s poem serves to show empathy and how it develops Elizabeth and makes her a better person, more understanding and appreciative of living in a changing world and facing challenges without an opportunity to escape. Bishop uses images: the magazine, the cry, blackness, and the various styles to make Elizabeth portray exactly what Bishop wanted. Through artful use of the said mechanisms, we at the end of a poem see a calm young girl who has come of age and is ready to reconcile “I” with a” We” and thus ready for the world.

Works Cited

Bowen, Claire. “Frames Of Reference: Paterson In “In The Waiting Room”. Twentieth-Century Literature, vol 54, no. 4, 2008, pp. 472-492. Duke University Press, doi:10.1215/0041462x-2008-1008.

Engel, Bernard F. Marianne Moore. 1st ed., New York, G.K. Hall & Co., 1999,.

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