Thursday, January 12, 2012

In the Waiting Room

        In Worcester, Massachusetts,
        I went with Aunt Consuelo
        to keep her dentist's appointment
        and sat and waited for her
(5)   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,
(10) lamps and magazines.
        My aunt was inside
        what seemed like a long time
        and while I waited and read
        the National Geographic
(15) (I could read) and carefully
        studied the photographs;
        the inside of a volcano,
        black, and full of ashes;
        then it was spilling over
(20) in rivulets of fire.
        Osa and Martin Johnson
        dressed in riding breeches,
        laced boots, and pith helmets.
        "Long Pig," the caption said.
(25) 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.
(30) 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.
(35) Suddenly, from inside,
        cane an oh! of pain
        --Aunt Consuelo's voice--
        not very loud or long.
        I wasn't at all surprised;
(40) even then I knew she was
        a foolish, timid woman.
        I might have been embarrassed,
        but wasn't.  What took me
        completely by surprise
(45) was that it was me:
        my voice, in my mouth.
        Without thinking at all
        I was my foolish aunt,
        I--we--were falling, falling
(50) 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.
(55) 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,
(60) 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.
(65) 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
(70) lying under the lamps.
        I knew that nothing stranger
        had ever happened, that nothing
        stranger could ever happen.

        Why should I be my aunt,
(75) or me, or anyone?
        What similarities
        boots, hands, the family voice
        I felt in my throat, or even
        the National Geographic
(80) 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"...
(85) 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
(90) 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,
(95) in Worcester, Massachusetts,
        were night and slush and cold,
        and it was still the fifth
        of February, 1918.

Elizabeth Bishop.


"In the Waiting Room," starts simply with a child speaker, but ultimately questions what it means to be a woman.  Visually, the poem is very simple.  Though stanzas vary in length, they stay fairly constant in terms of width.  It uses uncomplicated, declarative language, such as "The waiting room was bright / and too hot," (89-90) indicating the age of the girl and emphasizing the child perspective the speaker will use to address her own interpretation of gender.

The first and longest stanza establishes setting and brings out small bits of seemingly harmless observations and information; then we reach the speaker's epiphany at the end of the stanza where she pulls all of these observations together with purpose.  When Aunt Consuelo cries out, her voice was "not very long or loud" (38), and the speaker notes that "even then I knew she was / a foolish, timid woman" (40) for just like many other cries of women, it "could have / got loud and worse but hadn't" (87-88).  She "might have been embarrassed, / but wasn't" (41-42).  At first I did not understand this, but Bishop is suggesting that it is embarrassing to only give a short, shy, polite cry of pain if something is hurting you.
The second and third stanzas are similar in length.  The second stanza makes her epiphany more concrete and we (or this is when I did) finally understand what she is getting at--by "them" (61) she means women, and by "it" (64) she is referring to the idea of gender.  This is when you realize the connection between all the pieces that she had been dispensing.  In the third stanza, the girl realizes that she has already become a woman in soem aspects and is on her way to becoming one.

Poetic Devices

-Enjambment exists throughout the poem, almost in every line.
-Flashback: I interpreted this entire poem as a flashback, with the speaker looking back at her experience in the waiting room when she was a six-year-old girl.
-Metonymy: "shadowy gray knees / trousers and skirts and boots" (67-68)  refers to women.


  1. Please comment on this post.

  2. In reflecting on this poem, I am drawn back to its title. Ruby's analysis, which highlighted how the speaker is on her way to becoming a woman, seems to tie right in with the title "In the Waiting Room". The girl is only six so it isn't a poem about puberty but six-years-old is a time when you are excited to grow up and be treated like a "big kid" but the world still sees you as a little girl.
    I think Bishop is commenting on how this young girl is eager to do and see things but is still afraid. She opens the magazine and tentatively explores its stories but she is terrified to really read and still feels too immature to look at the pictures.
    I think this poem also contains some feminist undertones. The magazine shows women from an "uncivilized" culture who are comfortable enough having their ornamented breasts photographed. But the little girl in a place like America is embarrassed- a reaction to societal norms- to let out a quiet exclamation.

  3. Ruby’s and Marianna’s analyses of a girl growing up helped me to understand this coming-of-age poem. I feel that Bishop captures the point of view of a little girl perfectly through the abrupt changes in subject and simple language. Lines such as “and while I waited and read/the National Geographic/(I could read) and carefully/studied the photographs” (13-16) clearly demonstrates this. I find it interesting that the speaker connects to the adult world when she makes a sound of surprise.
    The only question I have about this poem is what the appearance of “a big black wave” could be a metaphor for (91)?

  4. As Ruby, Marianna and Ji have said, I also took this poem to be a coming-of-age poem. I agree with Marianna when she talked about hwo when you are younger you are always waiting to grow up and be an adult. The speaker seems excited but hesitant about growing up. I thought it was interesting how she said "I could read," (15) because she is trying to make herself seem older. People don't generally relate young children and reading with one another. She wants it to be known that she can read and that gives her a quality that people older than her have. The speaker did not want to be thought of as just a little kid looking at the pictures in the magazine. She is also anxious about her seventh birthday. I liked the title of the poem because "In the Waiting Room" makes me think of the little girl waiting to grow up.

  5. When the aunt yells out in pain, I interpreted that as an indication of her immaturity and the girl's recognition of this. The title, "The Waiting Room," seems to point towards the little girl's evolution into a woman of her aunt's age. However, with the aunt's scream, the girl's perception of adulthood is severely impacted. With the National Geographic magazine [as has been said already], I feel it is an item of transition for the girl, as she sees mature images for the possible first time in her life.

  6. I really loved this poem. It seems as though the young girl is trying to fight for racial equality (although her own transformation is minimal). Thanks for sharing!

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