Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Review: Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room”

Experience of individuation

By Bob Boldt

I find Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” [text provided below] to be a wondrous, amazing poem for many reasons. First I enjoy narrative poetry—poems that tell a story. I especially enjoy this aspect in nearly all of Bishop’s work that I have read. One of the things I most admire is her ability to express in familiar terms the sometimes intangible experiences that occur. Often her poems express commonplace, banal experiences we all share but expressed with such perception, eloquence, and insight that we understand things in a new, deeply moving way. Other times she may choose as the subject of her poems a thing that is not all that accessible or easily comprehensible, as in “In the Waiting Room.”
    The setting for the poem is unremarkable: a six-year-old girl is sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, while her aunt is completing her appointment. We are treated to all the sensual components of the landscape that represent her already well-formed world. These are experiences that the poet remembers of the 6-year-old younger version of herself and presumably the memory of an actual childhood occurrence. The poem represents, for me, one of the most lucid and profound expressions of the process of individuation. This is a fascinating and illusive memory of an event that most cannot recall. I can only remember snatches of impressions of when it happened to me in my early childhood lying in my bed at night. With Elizabeth, this took place at a very specific point in time, February 5th 1918, and in a very specific place in space, Worchester, Massachusetts.
    She begins with the ordinary, remembered sights and sounds of a normal waiting room in winter. And then something “unlikely,” unexpected, and remarkable occurs. Elizabeth suddenly has a feeling of connectedness with the Great All. This is actually quite disturbing to a little girl, who is left clinging to her individual identity that she feels slipping away from her in spite of all her efforts to hold it. Like one drowning, she feels herself and all her projections, all her stories of the world, in short, her reality “…sliding beneath a big black wave, another and another.” And then just as suddenly she is “back in it” – Worchester, Massachusetts, winter 1918.

For me this poem is like “Alice in Wonderland” meets “The Heart of Darkness.” It is hard to fully understand what has transpired here to young Elizabeth. She has slipped down the rabbit hole into the heart of the Ocean of All Being. Mystics, and some psychologists and anthropologists, believe we skate like water spiders on the surface of a reality which is really only an illusion of being, beneath which lies Ultimate Being. The images from the National Geographic serve as a precipitating stimulus for her coming unstuck from her conditioned reality. This is not the whole reason. Her own precocious maturity, consciousness of self, and her growing spirituality have culminated at that time and place to cause her, for the smallest moment of time, to break through this illusion. She of course is terrified and mercifully soon returns to the present as if awaking from a dream – or is it awaking back into a dream? Clearly it was, for the poet, a defining moment and one she would never forget. Would that we could have had more intimate contact with our childhood when I’m sure we all frequently had such lucid out-of-body / out-of-time experiences.
In the Waiting Room
By Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

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 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.
            –From The Complete Poems 1927-1979,
            published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
[The Voices and Visions poetry series did an excellent video interpretation of “In the Waiting Room” for television:

Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt

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