Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.
- Okay, we admit it: this is not the most exciting start to a poem. The speaker starts simple, setting the scene and telling us where she is. She's at the dentist's office with her aunt, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a small city west of Boston.
- Does this sound fun to you? Probably not. Who likes going to the dentist? Who likes hanging around in waiting rooms? Yeah, not us, either.
- Plus, the waiting room itself is an ominous space. Nothing happens there. You just have to wait there for something to happen. It's a liminal – or, in between-y – space.
- The poem starts with a wide lens. The speaker talks about where she is in the country. Then she zooms in to her location in the dentist's waiting room. Bishop is famous for this kind of detail.
- We don't know much about the speaker yet, but we know she's talking in the past tense about an event that has already happened. She seems a bit on the young side because of the way she talks about "Aunt Consuelo." How many grown-ups do you know who talk about accompanying their "Aunt Consuelos" to the dentist? Not too many, we'd guess.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
- The poem is starting to sound a little more menacing now. It's winter, and it's getting dark early – cue the creepy music.
- The speaker talks about the "grown-up people" who are with her in the waiting room, so it's clear now that she's young. Grown-ups don't usually call other adults "grown-ups."
- Everyone is dressed in their heavy New England winter gear, and the office is filled with regular dentist's office stuff – lamps, magazines.
- Basically, the speaker continues to set the scene here, zooming in more and more until we're focused on the magazines. We started off with a wide scope, and now we're up close and personal with the speaker.
My aunt was inside
what seems like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
- We find out that the speaker is a little bored and a little restless. Whatever is happening with her aunt is taking a long time.
- Our speaker seems pretty proud of the fact that she can read: she announces this in her parenthetical remark. This makes us think that she's actually very young.
- Still, it seems like she's more interested in the photographs in the magazine than the articles. She doesn't say, for example, that she "looks" at the photos. She says instead that she "studies" them. She sure is giving them a lot of attention.
- Just what kind of magazine is National Geographic? Well, it's a pretty important magazine that's been around since 1888. It's known for reporting on geography, nature, history, anthropology, and culture, and it's also famous for its photography. (For more on National Geographic, check out what we have to say about it on our Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay page.)
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.
- Our speaker catalogues the photographs that she "studies" in the National Geographic.
- The first photograph is of a volcano that's filled with ashes. Her description of the volcano "spilling over," which is in the present tense, makes it sound like it's happening in her real life, and not just in the magazine. It's like the photo has come alive. Cue that creepy music again.
- The next photograph is of Osa and Martin Johnson, a famous husband and wife explorer team who traveled all over the world in the early 20th century. They were known for documenting the people and wildlife of the Eastern hemisphere, and sharing what they learned with the Western world through magazines, photographs, and documentary films.
- The third photograph is even creepier than the first. There's a dead man on a pole, and the caption refers to him as a "pig." Is there some hint of cannibalism here? Is the dead man about to be roasted over a fire? Is that why he's "slung on a pole"? We don't know for sure, but it sounds like there's something unpleasant in store for this dead guy.
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.
- Our speaker keeps cataloguing what she sees, and she's overwhelmed by the photos of people who seem strange to her: the babies with pointed heads, the naked women with wires around their necks. The women of certain African and Asian cultures wear neck coils in order to elongate their necks; that's probably who the women in the pictures are.
- The speaker repeats the rhyming phrase "wound round and round," as if to express her shock at what she sees.
- In an attempt to understand these women, our speaker uses a simile, and compares the wire rings to something that she finds familiar: the light bulb.
- But she's still overwhelmed. She is horrified by the photos of the naked women. Earlier in the poem, she seemed to place some distance between herself and the "grown-up people." Here, she's frightened by the signs of physical maturity in women – of the women's breasts. It's almost like she's afraid to grow up into an adult, because that will bring changes that she's not ready for.
- Or is there something else going on? Does she maybe have some desire for these women? Is she scared by her own interest in them? Maybe, maybe not. (For more on this, see what we have to say about the women in our Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay section.)
- Even though she's afraid, the speaker can't put the magazine down. For her, it's like looking at a train wreck: it's horrible, but she can't stop looking.
- Finally, she stops looking at the photographs, and checks out the cover of the magazine. She notices the date and the magazine's yellow margins. It seems like she's trying to convince herself that everything she's seen exists only in the magazine, and that it's not real. It's like she's trying to contain her confused feelings within the magazine's covers.
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,
- Just in case we forgot where we were for a moment, the speaker reminds us that we're not actually in Africa with the women with wires around their necks – we're still in the dentist's office.
- The speaker hears her Aunt Consuelo shout "oh!" from pain. Maybe she's in the middle of a root canal, or having a cavity filled? Whatever's happening in that dentist's office doesn't sound fun.
- The speaker isn't surprised by the cry. Apparently, she doesn't have a very high opinion of Aunt Consuelo. She's not "embarrassed" by her, though. It sounds like the speaker is trying to draw a distinction between herself and her aunt. Our speaker would never cry out from the dentist's chair, and she insists that her aunt's behavior doesn't reflect on herself. She refuses to be embarrassed by her.
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,
- In the earlier lines, the speaker seemed to assert her independence from her aunt. Now she does just the opposite. She hears her aunt's cry come out of her own mouth, and she says that she "was" her foolish aunt.
- What does she mean? Has she gone through some crazy metamorphosis? Have she and her aunt turned into some kind of sci-fi hybrid monster? Probably not. The speaker is most likely imagining that she and her aunt are the same person.
- The experience of pain – the cry from the dentist's chair – is what causes the speaker to make this identification with her aunt. It's not a happy experience that brings them together. And it happens, the speaker tells us, "without thinking" – this is a kind of emotional bond that the speaker experiences.
- Then she imagines that she and her aunt are falling. She repeats the word, which suggests that it's a pretty intense experience. And what are they looking at? The National Geographic magazine from February, 1918. Their eyes are "glued" to it. This is a powerful word. They can't look away, even if they want to. It seems like the speaker might be connecting her horrifying experience of reading the magazine with her aunt's pain from the dentist's chair.
- The date of the magazine is important too, because now we know that the poem is taking place during World War I.
- Check this out: some poetry scholars have done some serious research into this poem, and guess what? While it does include photos of volcanoes, the real life National Geographic from February 1918 doesn't actually include any of the other things that the speaker mentions. There are no babies with pointed heads, there's no dead man on a pole, and there are no naked women.
- What's going on here? Is Bishop lying to us? Did she make a mistake and confuse her magazines? Did she blur truth and fiction on purpose? Poetry critics have been arguing about this for decades, but one thing's for sure: we can't assume that this poem is an autobiography of Elizabeth Bishop.