Joanne Feit Diehl

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Power"

The opening poem in The Dream of a Common Language describes a similar revision of myth--again, the hero is a woman, and the treasure is not simply scientific knowledge but also knowledge of self, as the poet describes an attempt to reach into the earth for the sources of woman's distinctive power. Rich first combs through the earth deposits of "our" (female) experience of history to discover the amber bottle with its bogus palliative that will not ease the pain "for living on this earth in the winters of this climate." The second gesture of the poem is toward a text and model: the story of Marie Curie, a woman who seeks a "cure," denying that the "element she had purified" causes her fatal illness. Her refusal to confront the crippling force of her success and recognize the deadly implications of original discovery enables Curie to continue her work at the cost of her life. Denying the reality of the flesh, "the cracked and suppurating skin     of her finger-ends," she presses on to death:

She died     a famous woman     denying

her wounds


her wounds     came     from the same source as her power

Here, in the poem's closing lines, Rich uses physical space and the absence of punctuation (an extension of Dickinson's use of dashes) to loosen the deliberate, syntactic connections between words and thus introduces ambiguities that disrupt normative forms. The separation between words determines through the movement of the reader's eye--the movement past the "wounds" where it had rested the first time—the emphasis on the activity of denial and its necessary violation. The second "denying" carries the reader past the initial negative of a woman's denying self-destruction by extending the phrase "denying her wounds" into "denying her wounds came from the same source as her power." Denial is an essential precondition for the woman inventor's continuing to succeed; what she is denying, of course, is the inevitable sacrifice of self in work as well as the knowledge that her power and her wounds share a common source. Like Curie, this book’s later poems inform us, the woman poet must recognize a similar repression of her knowledge that what she is doing involves a deliberate rejection of the borrowed power of the tradition, the necessity of incurring the self-inflicted wounds that mark the birth of an individuated poetic voice.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "The Paper Nautilus"

With its unpredictability and sheer force, the octopus is a maternal creature whose embrace can kill. In "The Paper Nautilus," enfolding arms represent a desire for absolute love that engages related issues of maternal steadfastness and the tenacity of maternal affection. Like "An Octopus," "The Paper Nautilus" approaches, through elusive and at times evasive images, an alternative aesthetics that is gender-identified and political. If in "An Octopus" the appropriative, capitalistic mountaineers threaten the mountain's flora and fauna and ultimately the origins of artistic life itself, the paper nautilus rejects a commercial, suburban set of values, choosing in their stead an anti-authoritarian, maternal world of symbiotic nurturance and intimacy. Here the central trope is the creation of new life within and from a creature, the carefully balanced mutuality of the eggs and their maternal source. . . .

Turning away both from the generalized commercial values of society and more specifically from those writers who are trapped by false lust for fame and ease, the paper nautilus, with delicate tenacity, constructs something that will endure long enough to sustain life and become an object of loveliness. This entrapment contrasts with the freedom of the mother who releases rather than smothers her young. Aware that what she has to give is "perishable," the paper nautilus constantly guards her thin glass shell. . . .

Such vigilance is a testament to the fragility of her creation and a tribute to her loyalty. And yet the image of the maternal is not without its dangers, dangers strongly reminiscent both in visual and in psychological terms of the glacier as octopus. Like the octopus, the nautilus has eight arms, and again like the octopus, the danger, although here a danger evaded, is that she will crush what she strives to protect, the precise risk that the glacier as octopus presents to what flourishes through and in her potentially devastating presence.

The suddenness with which maternal devotion shifts from a totally benign to a much more ambivalent description is signaled by the image of entrapment. Again, Moore draws upon Greek myth, provocatively comparing the maternal paper nautilus's relation to her eggs to Hercules, who, according to legend, was the strongest man in the world and a figure of supreme self-confidence.

Moore's simile alludes to Hercules' second labor, the killing of the nine-headed Hydra (a difficult task, both because one of the heads was immortal and because as soon as one head was chopped off, two grew in its place). In the original story, Hercules is helped by his nephew Iolaus, who brings him a burning brand to sear the neck as he cuts the head so that it cannot sprout again. "When all have been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock." In Moore's recasting, the crab's bite contributes to Hercules' success because of the evident disparity between Hercules' physical strength and his activity in the world and the apparent fragility and stasis of the paper nautilus. Yet it is this paradoxical relationship that best expresses Moore's understanding of the alternative powers of maternal effort of the natural as the primary trope for artistic creation. Hers is no idealized maternity, but a complex understanding that combines the inherently adversarial potential in the relationship between daughter and mother with an abiding awareness of the dangers embodied in the mother. If, in "An Octopus," the arms that reach out create the abrasions of both potential destruction and the possibilities of renewed life, in "The Paper Nautilus" a similarly ambivalent mutuality between the mother and her eggs occurs:

    as Hercules, bitten

    by a crab loyal to the hydra,  was hindered to succeed,     the intensively     watched eggs coming from the shell free it when they are freed,--

In the poem's final lines, the vision of what remains after the eggs are freed, interdependence and the need for security, is reinscribed upon the shell itself:

    leaving its wasp-nest flaws     of white on white, and close-

    laid Ionic chiton-folds  like the lines in the mane of      a Parthenon horse,      round which the arms had  wound themselves as if they knew love      is the only fortress      strong enough to trust to.

These wasp-nest flaws preserve the scene of birth as they mark the scars of separation, While the "Ionic" folds and the Parthenon horse not only return us to Hercules and ancient Greece, the poem's close describes a powerful dependency that clouds the earlier vision of mutual, simultaneous freedom. "Chiton" reiterates the pattern of intimate dependency, referring both to "a gown or tunic, usually worn next to the skin" and to a "sea cradle, a mollusk of the class Amphineura, having a mantle covered with calcareous plates, found adhering to rocks." With her allusion to the chiton as garment and as "sea cradle," Moore undercuts the freedom of release through images that depict clinging, holding on for life. As a "cradle," a place for the newborn that is covered by plates, a cradle that itself clings, the chiton bears witness to the power of dependence.

Similarly, the arms, unidentified yet clearly human, cling even in statuary form to the Parthenon horse's mane for protection. And yet that idealized mutual liberation is undercut by the poem's close, which, in its allusions to "chiton-folds" and the arms that wind themselves around the Parthenon horse, reassert the need for protection. The knowledge Moore provisionally ascribes to the anonymous arms "as if they knew love / is the only fortress / strong enough to trust to" reintroduces the dangers of separation the poem had earlier cast aside. Like "An Octopus," that other poem of dangerous engulfment, "The Paper Nautilus" is both a refuge and a risk, offering, as it does, security from the outside world and the crushing pressure of dependency. If Bonnie Costello is correct when she asserts that in this poem "as always Moore directly associates these issues of protection and struggle with problems of language and interpretation," then the myth of poetic origins, as envisioned by Moore, is a maternal myth, wherein the mother proves as potentially dangerous as the world her daughter's words would inhabit.

From Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On 712 ("Because I could not stop for Death")

In a most attenuated, urbane vision, Dickinson crosses the threshold between life and death, yet she retains the power of speech to assert an audacious authority over all experience. The poem is "Because I could not stop for Death," which I read through Freud's "The Theme of the Three Caskets," a text that, in its antithetical argument clarifies Dickinson's relationship to desire and to the awareness of her own death. In his essay, Freud suggests that the male character in Shakespeare's tragedies, when faced with a choice that would fulfill his desire, elects silence, and that his choice signifies the conversion of his own inevitable death, over which he has no control, into an active choosing on his part. Thus, a man may strive to convert the necessity of dying into a willed gesture; in Freud's words, he is therefore able to "make friends with the necessity of dying." Freud draws upon Bassanio's choice in The Merchant of Venice of the casket containing lead, the apparently least valuable and dullest of the three caskets before him, which wins him the supremely articulate Portia. Here Freud makes the connection between the caskets or boxes and women as representatives of enclosure or womblike space. He reminds us that the silent Cordelia is King Lear's choice among his daughters and that as the silent woman, Cordelia is both origin and end: mother/mate/fate. Freud cites the end of Lear.

Enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms. Cordeila is Death. Reverse the situation and it becomes intelligible and familiar to us---the Death-goddess bearing away the dead hero from the place of battle, like the Valkyr in German mythology. Eternal wisdom, in the garb of the primitive myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.

Freud concludes, "But it is in vain that the old man yearns after the love of woman as once he had it from his mother; the third of the Fates alone, the silent goddess of Death, will take him into her arms."

Silent too, is that accommodating gentleman who stops for the woman in Dickinson's poem. Here the speaker is carried by death, and the poem attempts the kind of consolation Freud understands as a requirement for the male imagination before it can accept its fate. Although the speaker wishes to discover a means of converting inevitability into active choice, the poem's strategy is complex, going beyond a simple shift in sexual identification. What marks the break between Freud's Shakespearean women and Dickinson's persona is that Dickinson's woman refuses to be silent; she speaks throughout the experience. If there is no conversation between death and the woman, we nevertheless hear a voice that leads us through the journey to death and beyond, and that voice is the lyric "I" of the supposed victim who becomes the poem's controlling consciousness. The initial refusal of the woman to stop for death is identical to the male character's resistance manifested at the approach of death. Dickinson not only has him "stop" to pick her up, but also, as Harold Bloom has noted, she stops him. Death stops at her bidding, winning for the poet the privilege to lie against time. Death, though he may be kind, is no conversationalist, and what she knows, she learns through her own observation and surmise. The third party to this aide, "the chaperone, immortality," Bloom identifies with Dickinson's poems, thus leading to the triumph of art over death. And though this triumph is assuredly true for us who have her poems, I would suggest a different identity than the one Bloom assigns the chaperone, for if the poems offer a way of ensuring immortality (the texts themselves placed in a drawer, a box reminiscent of a casket?), this version of immortality does not ease the shock the self undergoes at the poem's close. The speaker is stunned not because she has achieved immortality, but because the acute awareness of the passage of time is just what has not fallen away. Immortality, with its promised freedom from the anxieties of chronos, is endlessly deferred at the poem's close.

Since then--'tis Centuries--and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses' Heads

Were toward Eternity--

The feeling of being "shorter than the Day" is not equivalent to that of atemporality. The speaker knows it has been centuries; time is measurable, but that first day, despite the cover, the protection, the civility, could not be made easier. Nothing protects her from the realization of her own death, nor is she freed by it.

Immortality provides no consolation, only prolonged consciousness of the end. It therefore functions as a blocking agent rather than the casket of art and more likely represents the presence of the absent Mother who vigilantly and for all time restrains the daughter from fulfilling her desire for the Father, from making friends with death. Although she is carried in a carriage (a sort of moving casket), the speaker nonetheless keeps her voice and maintains her awareness. Although death stops for her, her journey itself becomes an endless quest for Eternity. That one cannot triumph over time or over death may be this poem's most sorrowful wisdom. What remains within the speaker's control despite this defeat is the power of speech, a consciousness even death cannot efface. The triumph for art may be not that it will last beyond the poet, but that it continues to witness her refusal to make friends with death. Thus, Dickinson metaphorically murders death in order to control him; rather than make him her friend, she envisions him as the composite power that would seduce, wed, and silence her. Poem after poem strives to release death's hold by imagining his death as her freedom.

The lead casket will not be dumb, nor will Dickinson accept her appointed role as death mother through silence or concealment. Dickinson's revisionist rejection evolves out of the imperative to speak against the silent Father and the Mother who restrains her from fulfilling her desire. Thus, the "I" is doubly dependent. Yearning for the unattainable Father, she discovers him within her psyche; his strength turns against the self, making her victim of what she most desires. Thus, Dickinson must encounter and continually reenact the struggle with the exclusionary male who prefers to withhold rather than confer. Refused the assurance of becoming the Christa of American poetry or the new Christ as Whitman might triumphantly proclaim himself, Dickinson does not inherit Emerson's powers unchallenged. She first must resolve through aggression her need for supremacy in imaginatively murderous acts that recur because murder of the tradition is a most illusory triumph. Hers is a poetics as aggressive as any male oedipal struggle, yet complicated by an intensified vulnerability, a consciousness of perpetual exile, the awareness of the impossibility of winning adequate patriarchal recognition. With her characteristic astuteness, Dickinson once remarked, "When the subject is finished, words are handed away." But her words, though they may have slowed in her final years, were never discarded because her subject achieves no resolution. Conflict over death becomes, indeed, a form of poetic life. Unable to write without the "Father," yet forced to vanquish him in order to survive, Dickinson, with subtlety, wit, and death-defying irony, practices her murderous poetics. Sharp as surgeon's steel, this very praxis redeems the dependence her poems counter and magnificently, if sacrificially, destroy.

From Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl

Joanne Feit Diehl: On 601 ("A still——Volcano——Life——")

Whereas Emerson and Dickinson are both drawn to the vision of an imminent power that smoulders undetected, Dickinson "personalizes" this vision. Volcanic force is no longer associated with universal man as in "The American Scholar," but, instead, with the single life. Power does not run through all of us, as Emerson maintains; furthermore, it cannot be apprehended by anyone who observes the seemingly quiet, single self. The one soul which animates all men now stands isolated and alone. . . . This single life erupts irrevocably. Hidden, mysterious, still, the power floods mechanically; corals "part and shut"—destroying cities. What distinguishes this from Emerson's volcano is Dickinson ' s insistence on secrecy, on individuality, and on destruction. The poems will go further to identify this oral potency with both poetry and the self.

Moreover, Dickinson's practice of defining her self against Emerson's while drawing upon his language recurs in varying forms. Although she may alter the thrust of an Emersonian image or impose her own priorities on his diction, the new poem lies hidden in its parent text. Characteristically, a Dickinson poem takes an example that Emerson introduces into an essay and invests it with the strength of a subversive, anti-Emersonian vision.

From Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton UP

Joanne Feit Diehl: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

Dickinson comes closest to Wordsworth when she tries to read the meaning of light falling upon the land: . . .

Light, the element that bathes Wordsworth's landscapes, casts its shadow on this poem. The "certain slant" pierces the self, oppresses the spirit--it is not a seal of affirmation, but an "imperial affliction / Sent us of the Air." True to Wordsworthian dicta, Dickinson has responded to what she witnesses, but the light she finds is the type of doom she most fears. The "internal difference" filters down from Heaven through the landscape into the poet, and what for Wordsworth would be a reflective if sober moment becomes the "seal" of despair.

From Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Crusoe in England"

If "In the Village" sketches a psychically successful journey from mourning to reparation, "Crusoe in England" delineates a similar trajectory with a more somber outcome. Like "In the Village," "Crusoe in England" describes a site of loss, but here invention, while it can temporarily stave off loneliness cannot survive the return home. What constitutes the difference between the losses suffered in the story and poem is that Bishop, while she can constitute a world of meanings where human craft conspires with nature to create a safe haven for art, cannot constitute a world of sustained human relationships. Friday's loss proves irreparable because in this poem of unreconciled mourning, no other object comes to take his place. The haunting singularity that marks Crusoe's island speaks to Friday's reality as well, for he can neither be forgotten nor replaced. Reparation here would mean the internalization of Friday into the self and substitution for him in the external world. But neither internalization nor substitution occurs; instead Crusoe is left at home with loss. That "In the Village" should represent a more successful mourning process, that here reparation should discover itself in art, reveals the efficacy of Bishop's transformation of feelings from the lost mother to the regenerative father, from the world of women to the craft of men. The scream, if it is stilled, loses its power, as I have suggested, through the force of an alternative collaboration of male-identified reality and the natural sphere. Whereas the narrator in "Crusoe in England" assumes a male persona, that of Crusoe himself, and while what is mourned is therefore a homoerotic relationship, the masculinized provenance does not save the loss from being irreparable. What remains with Crusoe is the fact of Friday's death which echoes with all the plangency of sorrow. On the other hand, what both "Crusoe in England" and "In the Village" attest to is the importance of the process of mourning for Bishop. Our sense of ourselves and of the world comes, object-relations theorists would argue, from that earliest originary relationship of the infant-mother dyad. If, as in Bishop's case, that relationship is marked by disruption and abandonment, is it any wonder that all the inventiveness in Crusoe's possession cannot redress his subsequent loss? If the power of art to find reparation through mourning exists in Bishop, it may be found in the merger of a male-identified craft and attentiveness to the external world, for it is here, amidst the assurance of such an alternative place, that Bishop discovers the power that mitigates grief.

From Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity. Copyright © 1993 by Princeton UP.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Crusoe in England"

In one of her few public statements on the relation of gender to writing, Bishop commented, "Women’s experiences are much more limited, but that does not really matter – there is Emily Dickinson, as one always says. You just have to make do with what you have after all" (from page 1: "Elizabeth Bishop Speaks About Her Poetry," New Paper). For Bishop, making do meant a life of daring exploration and an intense dedication to craft – the sustained development of a style of straightforward effacement that coupled indirection with the plainness of speech. The guise of the traveler, the voice of the child, and the testimonies of grotesque, liminal creatures all convey experience profoundly felt and obliquely expressed. Different as these voices are, each carries a quality of existential displacement that restricts as it imagines the possibilities of human relationship.

In "Crusoe in England," Bishop’s most extreme poetic instance of gender-crossing fused with eroticism, the practical, stranded voyager with his laconic voice becomes the spokesman for feelings of great intimacy, fear of maternity, and the pain of separation and loss. Here the voice of the isolated man most clearly articultaes Bishop’s terrain of difference, for Crusoe’s hardship is related as much to the claustrophobia of entrapment within an obsessive imagination as it is to the physical conditions of the island. (As John Hollander observes, "The very island is an exemplar, a representation; it is a place which stands for the life lived on it as much as it supports that life. Its unique species are emblems of the selfhood that the whole region distills and enforces and on it, life and word and art are one, and the homemade Dionysos is [rather than blesses from without or within] his votary ["Elizabeth Bishop’s Mappings of Life," 1983, p. 250.) Loneliness finds its projection in a violent, aggressive landscape where volcanoes’ heads are "blown off" and the "parched throats" of craters are "hot to touch," an island hissing with aridity and the replication of barren life. 

From Joanne Fiet Diehl, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Sexual Politics" (from Women Poets and the American Sublime, Indiana University Press, 1990), rpt. in Elizabeth Bishop: The Politics of Gender, ed. Marilyn May Lombardi (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 19-20.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "One Art"

Bishop's late poem, "One Art' (whose title conveys the implicit suggestion that mastery sought over loss in love is closely related to poetic control), articulates the tension between discipline in life and the force of circumstance.

The poem speaks in the tones of the survivor:

the art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

The opening fine, with its echo of a folk prescription such as "an apple a day," leads into the specifics of daily loss—of keys, of time—syntactic parallelism suggesting an evaluative equation of what we immediately recognize as hardly equal realities. Such parallelism, by providing a temporary distraction that draws the reader away from the force building in the poem, functions as a disarming form of humor that undercuts the potential self-pity otherwise latent in the poem's subject.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master.

"One Art" presents a series of losses as if to reassure both its author and its reader that control is possible—ironic gesture that forces upon us the tallying of experience cast in the guise of reassurance. By embracing loss as Emerson had Fate (the Beautiful Necessity), Bishop casts the illusion of authority over the inexorable series of losses she seeks to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

The race continues between "disaster" and "master" as the losses include her mother's watch, houses, cities, two rivers, a continent, and, perhaps, in the future, an intimate friend whom, breaking out of the pattern of inanimate objects, the poem directly addresses:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It’s evident The art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Here conflict explodes as the verbal deviations from previously established word patterns reflect the price of the speaker's remaining true to her initial claim that experience of loss can yield to mastery. With a directness that comes to predominate in Bishop's later work, "One Art" delineates the relationship between the will and the world. Note the split of "a gesture / I love" across two lines; the profession stands by itself as it turns back toward the beloved gesture. Syntax reveals the pain "One Art" has been fighting, since its beginnings, to suppress as the thought of losing "you" awakens an anxiety the poem must wrestle with down to its close. This last time, the refrain varies its form, assuming an evidentiary structure that challenges as it expresses what has hitherto been taken as a fact recognized from within the poet's consciousness. Coupled with the addition of "it's evident" is the adverbial "too" (It’s evident / the art of losing's not too hard to master"), which increases the growing tension within the desire to repeat the poem's refrain while admitting growing doubts as to its accuracy. In the end, the pressure to recapitulate the by-now-threatened refrain betrays itself in the sudden interruption of the closing line by an italicized hand that enforces the completion of the "master" / "disaster" couplet that the poem itself has made, through its formal demands, an inevitable resolution: "the art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." The repetition of "like" postpones, ever so fleetingly, the final word that hurts all the more. The inevitability of "disaster" ironically recalls the fatalism of such childhood rituals as "he loves me; he loves me not" - in which the child's first words, "he loves me," and the number of petals on the flower determine the game's outcome. In its earlier evocation of folk ritual and in the villanelle's rhyme scheme, "One Art" reveals an ironic playfulness that works in collusion with high seriousness, a strategy that proliferates throughout Bishop's work.

from Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright © by Joanne Fiet Diehl

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "In the Waiting Room" (2)

While "The Bight" may be among the clearest, most sustained instances of the aesthetic containment of the aggressive in the matter-of-fact, elsewhere, in both her poetry and prose, Bishop addresses related processes of the mind's striving to find ways to preserve its equilibrium in the face of inner- or externally-derived attack. The question of the origins of the aggressive impulse and its object is reiterated in both the late poem "In the Waiting Room" and the prose narrative, "In the Village". Although others, most notably Lee Edelman, have written at length on "In the Waiting Room", I wish to focus on the dynamics specifically associated with the handling of aggression. In this poem, the almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth passes the time in the dentist's waiting room reading the National Geographic and "carefully" studying photographs that represent various kinds and consequences of aggression:

The inside of a volcano, black, and full of ashes; then it was spilling over in rivulets of fire. . . . .    . . . .    . . . 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. (159)

What she witnesses in the magazine is a prelude to what she hears:

Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain —Aunt Conseulo's voice— not very loud or long. (160)

The confusion surrounding the origins of the cry, whether it comes from the girl or the aunt, or both, initiates a vertiginous loss of identity. The cry results from an act of clinical performance that might be construed as a form of prophylactic aggression situated in an oral site. The cry emerges from inside an identification that the girl assumes with the aunt. To offset the vertiginous feelings that issue from this fusion of identities, the girl says to herself, "three days / and you'll be seven years old". She inserts the language of fact between the conclusion precipitated by her perceptions of aggression, both visual and aural, and the sense of individuality she strives to maintain. Almost lost to the uncanny experience of merger between herself and her aunt, between herself and the images in the National Geographic—something pulls her back—the "cry of pain . . . could have / got loud and worse but hadn't". On the verge of being overcome by sensation,

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

the self is returned to ongoing reality, to the matter-of-fact. The process of recuperation is silent, transpiring in the space between the poem's closing stanzas:

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. (161)

Whatever psychic processes are enacted within that trans-stanzaic silence, the outcome is a return to the quotidian, the facticity of dailiness that orients the speaker in her world. Aggression and destruction which have carried the speaker to the brink of dissolution are now contained enough to permit the reemergence of identity, the continuation of ordinary consciousness. The mystery surrounding this mental process remains unsolved. What substitutes for that solution is the repetition of a sequence of facts that establishes a reassuring connection with external circumstance. Although the poem excludes any explanation of how this transition is made, the verbal testimony of the final stanza itself offers a kind of answer. For, it is the world of the matter-of-fact that stands in for other, more disruptive, potentially catastrophic realities. Bishop's oft-noted devotion to the matter-of-fact, when contextualized psychoanalytically, might be seen as a willed orientation toward the external as an act of defence against the blurring of ego boundaries. Paradoxically, attentiveness directed toward the external enables the writerly ego simultaneously to align itself empathic ally with the outer world while the iteration of facts, the very process of naming, inscribes a continual sense of difference between those facts and the imagining subject. Thus, in an ironic gesture of self-assertion, the poet strengthens self-other boundaries through an investment in attending to outward fact.

from "Bishop and the Matter of Fact." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Copyright © 2000.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "In the Waiting Room"

Two poems from Bishop's last volume, Geography III, by means of apparently contrasting yet structurally similar experiences. "In the Waiting Room" and "The Moose" both explore the self’s relation to others as they articulate a moment that interrupts the continuous act of sublimation that enables us to preserve an ongoing constitutive identity. In each poem, the crisis of that interruption is resolved through a gesture of reunion with life beyond the self that allows identity to reconstitute itself in a recognizable form. These poems delineate an ecstasis that recalls the vertiginous psychic shifts of the experiential Sublime. "In the Waiting Room," strangers isolated by anxiety and anonymity come together, their status provisional, for they are on the outside waiting to go in. In "The Moose" the liminal is again invoked as strangers embark on a communal journey only to await their arrival at various destinations. Against these provisional environments, Bishop introduces images of family. The bus passengers in "The Moose" catch a glimpse of a woman shaking out a tablecloth. Anonymous voices float softly from the back of the bus (the recesses of the mind?) to create a soothing lullaby of conversation that retells the history of people's lives. But the family is not the narrator's own; if the recollections draw her back into her past, it is through the aura of remembrance created by others' voices.

Within "In the Waiting Room," familial forms assume a more terrifying guise. While she waits for her aunt to emerge from the dentist's chair, "Elizabeth" reads an article in National Graphic where human images assume macabre, distorted forms:

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.

What is meant to pass the time becomes a rite of passage as the seven-year-old "Elizabeth" is led into the abyss of a self she had not earlier recognized as her own:

Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain --Aunt Consuelo's voice-- not very loud or long.


. . .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.

The child counters the vertigo that accompanies her faltering sense of self with facts, with information about the external world and contemporary events. What has threatened her perception of identity can be traced, at least for its proximate cause, to the grotesque pictorial representations of man, woman, and child. What so disturbs "Elizabeth" that she loses the sense of self one takes for granted in order to live in the world? Lee Edelman addresses this issue:

Though only in the course of reading the magazine does "Elizabeth" perceive the inadequacy of her positioning as a reader, Bishop's text implies from the outset the insufficiency of any mode of interpretation that claims to release the meaning it locates "inside" a text by asserting its own ability to speak from a position of mastery "outside" of it. For this reason everything that "Elizabeth"encounters in the pages of the National Geographic serves to disturb the stability of a binary opposition.

This disturbance incorporates, moreover, a questioning of the internalized structures and cultural codes that inform the interpretation of experience. If Bishop's sexual poetics more generally deconstructs the binary oppositions of heterosexist discourse, "In the Waiting Room" addresses a related epistemological concern that arises from Bishop's destabilization of the distinctions by which persons organize information about themselves and their world. Edelman continues, "Though Bishop's text, then, has challenged the stability of distinctions between inside and outside, male and female, literal and figurative, human and bestial, young 'Elizabeth' reads on from her own position of liminality in the waiting room until she confronts, at last, an image of women and their infants: . . ." By focusing on "Elizabeth's" vexed response to the horrific image of maternal sexuality, Edelman introduces us to the larger question of female sexuality in Bishop's work as he urges us to hear the "oh!" that "emanates from inside the dentist's office, and from inside the waiting room, and from inside the National Geoqraphic, and from inside 'In the Waiting Room.' It is a cry that cries out against any attempt to clarify its confusions because it is a female cry - a cry of the female - that recognizes the attempts to clarify it as attempts to put it in its place." That voice of protest emanating from an epistemological uncertainty, echoes throughout Bishop's work in poems that reengage the mediations between rhetoric and sexual identity. The fall away from awareness of distinctions disrupts the assurance of a constitutive identity, and the restoration of that identity through the intervention of the external is akin to the final stage of the experiential Sublime, wherein the poet's identity, momentarily repressed by a power felt to be greater than and external to it, reemerges. That the experiential Sublime should, in this poem, be so closely linked to the voice of female sexuality and the overthrowing of culturally encoded identities reaffirms the alternative aspect of the psychological Sublime for the woman poet. Gender is at the center of any such aesthetic crisis, and the eroticization of literary categories serves the function of deidealizing the work of the human imagination.

from Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl