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In the Waiting Room," for example, carries simplicity of language to its extreme in an extremely unnerving situation. Very carefully, in the most prosaic phrases, times and places are labelled: "In Worcester, Massachusetts"; "I said to myself. three days/and you'll be seven years old"; "it was still the fifth/of February, 1918." In one way, the language of this poem seems to suggest that one can make the terrifying and strange normal and orderly by putting ordinary words in ordinary places. In another way, it suggests (by its halting, anxious flatness and its flashes of menacing imagery) that just beneath the individual attempt at rational arrangement or domestication is intractable otherness, ready to erupt like the volcano pictured in the dentist's office copy of the National Geographic. The child in the waiting room appears orphaned (no mother or father enters the picture, only her "foolish aunt"), and this makes her attempt to domesticate the strange particularly poignant--even more so when we remember that Elizabeth Bishop herself was brought up not by her parents but by an assortment of relations. The grave and literate child in this poem, like the oddly whimsical and studiously plainspoken adult in "Crusoe in England," is obviously an autobiographical figure. And "The War" mentioned at the end of "In the Waiting Room" evokes Bishop's embattled poetic stance, just as Crusoe's fashioning of makeshift entertainments and tools suggests her poetic fashioning. [. . .] [T]he almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth in "In the Waiting Room" experiences not a Wordsworthian sense of cosmic embrace, but rather the alternating terrors of a centripetal force that squashes her together with other people (her aunt, whose scream "from inside" seems to be her own, the woman in the National Geographic Magazine with "awful hanging breasts") along with a centrifugal force that threatens to spin her off "into cold, blue-black space." As the emphasized name later in the poem makes clear, the precocious female minor in "In the Waiting Room"--with her sensitivity to language and interest in reading, her acute powers of observation and her anxiety about growing up a woman--is a prefiguration of the adult poet or "minor female Wordsworth." Elizabeth Bishop looks back in this poem (in what will be her final book) on her anxious and overwhelmed child self with still-fresh empathy, but with the assurance and control of the accomplished artist.


From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.