Elizabeth Dodd: On "In the Waiting Room"

While there is a quiet, even suppressed presence of homoeroticism in some of Bishop's work - most notably in some uncollected poems - for the poem Edelman examines in greatest detail, "In the Waiting Room," a study of lesbian awakening does not appear to be the most fruitful reading of this poem. . . what the speaker, Elizabeth, reads in the copy of National Geographic is more than the pictures and descriptions of naked women, but also the possibility of cannibalism and decoration of babies through mutilation.

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 straight through. I was too shy to stop. And then I looked at the cover: the yellow margins, the date.

Certainly the poem shows gender awareness here and later when Elizabeth says

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?

Yet the gender awareness is tied up with the larger awareness of humanity in general; the young Elizabeth is not really discovering her sexuality so much as she is discovering her own participation in the human race -including her gender identity. The result, therefore, is an epiphany on a larger order than awakening of sexual orientation, and the poem's subject is larger than a careful encoding of lesbian identity. It does not exclude the connections among human beings that are homosexual in nature, nor does it those that are heterosexual. In fact, the poem does not seem interested in excluding human relations at all but rather on noting their peculiar, "unlikely" tenuousness. The poem does not close, after all, focusing on those breasts but rather on a deadly political issue:

The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918.

This is quite unlike, for example, Adrienne Rich's poem "Trying to Talk with a Man," where the imagery of nuclear bomb-testing is not the major issue at stake but is rather a trope for understanding the combative relations between the sexes. For Bishop, World War I suggests a danger, as does nuclear testing for Rich. But that danger is not one that arises because of gender-identification or sex roles, unlike the "danger" Rich specifically mentions. Instead, it is the possibility of violence done by any human being to another, on an individual, tribal, or global level: a woman to her baby, a man to another man, etc. Bishop wishes to make a large suggestion about the perplexity - the "unlikeliness" -of being human. And she wants to be sure to make it through the perception of an individual, an "Elizabeth."

from The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

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Criticism Overview
Title Elizabeth Dodd: On "In the Waiting Room" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elizabeth Dodd Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück
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