Renée R. Curry: On "In the Waiting Room"

In Bishop's final book, Geography III, her famous identity poem, "In the Waiting Room," not only addresses the discovery of one's gender, but it also includes Bishop among women of color. The persona of the poem is young and not quite certain that she wants to belong to this world of "breasts." The girl understands little about women, but she does discern that the world of women, with whom she is suddenly identified, includes many women of many colors, including white.

While waiting for her Aunt Consuela in the dentist's office, the young Elizabeth scans through a National Geographic. She surveys among the pictures some black, naked women with interesting necks:

wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying.                         (Complete Poems 159)

While she is reading, her Aunt Consuela lets out an "Oh!" of pain, and the young Elizabeth of the poem experiences a moment of sheer empathy with the aunt. She empathizes in multiple confusing ways: with the pain, the fact of Aunt Consuela's femaleness, with the family sound of the voice. The sensation is overwhelming and causes a feeling of vertigo for Elizabeth.

By talking to herself about her upcoming birthday, the child stops the swirling sensation of discovering her connectedness to women, to a particular family, and to pain. She contemplates the situation and questions:

But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of Them. Why should you be one, too?                     (Complete Poems 160)

Her question, "why," occurs again, with a greater sense of the similarities:

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?                     (Complete Poems 161)

She cannot quite put her finger on the similarities, but Bishop makes clear in the poem that the persona recognizes the similarities regardless of the awfulness she ascribes to the breasts themselves. This coming of age poem is an important signifier in terms of understanding Bishop's ideological framework regarding whiteness and connections among women.

Clearly, at least for the moment of this poem, and at least beyond the initial awful surprise at the observation of the black breast, this white female child does recognize herself as connected to women of color. The frightening part of this recognition comes when the child then feels herself sliding beneath a series of black waves. To feel remotely connected to women of color, to black women, especially by virtue of femaleness, brings on a feeling of being drowned in blackness:

The waiting room was bright and too hot. It was sliding beneath a big black, wave, another, and another.                     (Complete Poems 161)

Sadly, Bishop recognizes the connection but also expresses the workings of her imagination, which claim that any connection to blacks feels like suffocating, like being smothered in blackness. Recalling "The Imaginary Iceberg" and Dyer's claim that whites associate themselves with mountaintops and purer forms of oxygen, "In the Waiting Room" reaffirms that connections with blackness cause difficulty in breathing and threaten death.

Bishop cannot locate a consistent ideological base from which to derive comfort regarding this issue of race. She understands the need for change and connection, but the attempts at connection are not long lasting or they threaten to overwhelm. 

from White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness. Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renée R. Curry.

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Criticism Overview
Title Renée R. Curry: On "In the Waiting Room" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Renèe R. Curry Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication White Women Writing White: H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness
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