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Analysis of Poem 'In The Waiting Room' by Elizabeth Bishop

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

'In The Waiting Room' Elizabeth Bishop analysis

'In The Waiting Room' Elizabeth Bishop analysis

Elizabeth Bishop and a Summary of 'In The Waiting Room'

'In The Waiting Room' is a long, ninety-nine-line, five-stanza poem that focuses on the reaction of a young girl who, whilst waiting for her Aunt Consuelo in the dentist's waiting room, picks up a National Geographic magazine and looks at the pictures.

From that moment on the poem takes the reader into the mind of this young six-year-old, captivated and slightly horrified by what she sees in the adult magazine.

She is still in the waiting room, aware of all that goes on around her - she hears her Aunt Consuelo scream - but emotionally she is transported to a different place.

'In The Waiting Room' starts and ends with straight facts. The reader knows exactly where and when this little girl's emotional state begins to change. She will soon grow up and become a woman, a connected member of the human race. But it won't be easy, like a visit to the dentist.

Elizabeth Bishop's mix of literal and figurative language combines to create a fascinating insight into what it means to come of age.

'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,

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arctics and overcoats,

lamps and magazines.

My aunt was inside

what seemed like a long time

and while I waited I 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.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

First Stanza (Lines 1-35)

The scene is set. A little girl sits in the dentist's waiting room. Her Aunt Consuelo is 'inside' being worked on by the dentist. This is a simple enough start for the reader, we're even told the name of the town and the state as if the speaker wants to nail exactly where it is the event took place.

Simple start, simple language. Yet as the first stanza progresses, the little girl becomes increasingly aware of the slightly oppressive atmosphere. She notices the early dark, the grown-ups, her aunt being a long time. To keep boredom at bay she picks up a National Geographic. She's only six but she's able to read what is an adult magazine. Precocious child? Maybe.

The pictures signify the impending change. First an erupting volcano, then an eccentric couple, then a dead man who might be a meal for cannibals, and pointy-headed babies, black naked women with saggy breasts and strange long necks - the images pile up and overwhelm the innocent girl.

She's too self-conscious to stop reading and looking, so she goes through the whole magazine before studying the cover, which seems to frame, like a picture frame, all of the images. The breasts in particular.

Second Stanza (Lines 36-53)

The reader is gradually taken into the mind of the girl, focused on the pages of the National Geographic but then a cry of pain from her aunt brings the speaker back into the reality of the waiting room. This reality is short-lived, however.

Her aunt's familiar voice becomes her own, unthinking family voice. The girl instinctively connects with her own blood and cannot stop herself - she is her aunt, two become one and they are falling, the girl is falling out of her childhood and into a different dimension.

Third Stanza (Lines 54-89)

The consciousness of the child is changing - she becomes aware of her connection with her aunt and all the others gathered in the waiting room. This is a shockingly odd revelation. Everyone is in this world together and even the girl herself will become one of them, she will grow up, become a woman with breasts.

Despite her questions and existential doubts, growing into an adult will be painful, involve a few screams perhaps, but the process is unavoidable. Note the use of specific language to help reinforce the idea of alienation and discomfort:

the sensation of falling off....into cold, blue-black space.

I scarcely dared to look/to see what it was I was.....I gave a sidelong glance

shadowy......nothing stranger could ever happen.

those awful hanging breasts....a cry of pain...

What future awaits this girl pondering the whys and wherefores of her identity, chewing over the strong images in the magazine as her timid aunt cries out in pain behind the dentist's door?

Fourth Stanza (Lines 90-93)

It's as if all the emotion and feelings of the previous three stanzas flood through the girl's being in the shape of black waves, dark forces that are in danger of swamping the reality of the here and now. She is fearful of what she might become, she can't know what will happen when she's a woman, she only knows she isn't yet ready for that 'unlikely' adult world.

Fifth Stanza (Lines 94-99)

At the end is there a sign of relief for this girl who seems to want time to stop and her growth hormones to not exist. There's a definite reality check. The girl, with no mention of Aunt Consuelo, no mention of the dental appointment ending, simply admits that it is still February, she is still in Massachusetts, and humanity is still at war.

Young people often can't wait to grow up but that transition to adulthood can be a challenge. I wonder if she regretted ever picking up that National Geographic?

Literary Devices Used

'In The Waiting Room' is a free verse poem. There is no regular, set end-rhyme scheme to the lines and no rhythmic pattern. Some lines are trimeter, others dimeter, with variations, but the overall impression is that the form is prose chopped into punctuated lines.

Read it out loud and it is this careful use of punctuation, together with enjambment, that guides the voice and pace and understanding. For example, look at these lines (48-53) from the second stanza:

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 poet uses commas, dashes and end stops (periods, full stops) to regulate the reader's pace, so there are pauses to reflect the girl's hesitation as she sits digesting the pictures.

Alliteration occurs from time to time - while I waited - beneath a big black wave - which brings interest to the texture of the words; and assonance is used - wound round and round.

The simile - like the necks of light bulbs - helps the reader picture exactly what the girl is seeing in the National Geographic.

The poet incorporates all of these devices with mostly simple language and a first-person perspective to take the reader right into the dentist's waiting room, where a small girl sits hardly daring to look up.


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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