In the Waiting Room
by Elizabeth Bishop
Analysis: Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay
There’s more to a poem than meets the eye.
National Geographic is a famous magazine that's been around since 1888. It covers topics such as geography, science, the environment, anthropology, history, and culture. In Bishop's day, it was known for giving people in the Western world a little peek into places that they'd never been – places from the South Pacific to Tibet to Algeria. It was also famous for its yellow borders on the cover: every issue since the very first one has had them. You can check out the magazine's website.
- Lines 14-35: Here, Elizabeth describes her experience of reading the magazine. She reads and sees photos of things that scare her – there's a volcano, a dead man, and naked women. As a six-year-old girl in Massachusetts, Elizabeth has probably never seen anything like this before, either in real life, or in a magazine (and 1918 was way before the invention of TV or the Internet). National Geographic exposes her to people and things far outside of her realm of personal experience.
- Lines 50-53: Elizabeth brings up the magazine again, and imagines that she and her aunt are falling though space. Even while they are free falling, they can't help but look at the cover of the magazine. The magazine has some kind of strange power over both of them.
- Lines 77-83: Elizabeth asks what the similarities are that bond everyone in the world together – not just her and her aunt, but also the other people in the waiting room, and the people she sees in the magazine. The magazine, which exposes her to other cultures, has caused her to ask some big life questions.
The Naked Women
Elizabeth has a very strong reaction to the naked black women that she sees in National Geographic. She says that she's horrified by them, but, at the same time, she can't look away from them. She has to keep reading and looking at the photographs.
There are a few things that could be going on here. First, she could be scared by the simple fact of their difference from herself – they're older, they're of a different race, and they're naked. Second, she could see herself in them, despite their differences. Maybe she's worried about the changes that her body will undergo as she matures – maybe she's worried about developing breasts. Third, she could be attracted to the women, not necessarily in a sexual way, but possibly in a curiosity way. This kind of attraction might frighten her.
- Lines 28-31: The women have coils around their necks, and Elizabeth says that they look like light bulbs. She's trying to make sense of these women, and compares them to something familiar. She says, interestingly, that "their breasts were horrifying," not, for example, that "they were horrifying." She locates her fear in this specific body part – the breast. Breasts can be symbols of sexuality. They also might be symbols of femininity more broadly, or of maturation, or even of motherhood. It's not clear which one of these ideas Elizabeth is reacting to.
- Lines 77-81: As Elizabeth asks her big questions about the connectedness of all human beings, she includes the black women who terrify her. She references their "awful hanging breasts" again, but here she seems just a little less afraid. She's trying to understand how she lives in the same world as people who are so different from her. Instead of just being shocked, she's thinking things through.
It's an interesting moment when Aunt Consuelo cries out. She says the word "oh!," which has no semantic content. This means that the word has no inherent meaning: in the poem, it's just a signal for pain. And this "oh!" is the immediate catalyst for Elizabeth's deep thoughts. It's the point at which she begins to try to make sense of her relationships with other people. In this poem, people are brought together by recognition of each other's pain.
- Lines 36-47: Aunt Consuelo cries out "oh!" from inside the dentist's office, and Elizabeth eventually identifies the cry as her own. In her imagination, she and her Aunt become one in this moment of pain. It doesn't last long, but the "oh!" really shakes Elizabeth to her core.
- Lines 86-89: Elizabeth questions how she got to be where she is, and how she got into the strange situation of hearing her aunt cry in pain. She mentions that the cry of pain could have been worse, or longer. Elizabeth seems kind of morbid here: she's almost imagining the pain to be worse than it actually was.
Blackness is a sign of otherness in the poem, which means that it is used to describe people and things that are unknown to and/or different from Elizabeth. For Elizabeth, the unknown and different are a little scary, and sometimes even horrifying. She equates black people with black things (volcanoes, waves) in the poem that scare her. Does this mean that Elizabeth is racist, because she's scared of black people? Probably not – the poem is more subtle than that. But Elizabeth is both drawn to and repelled by the black people in the poem, people whom she's probably not had exposure to in her life before. After all, she's only six. If she kept expressing these same views as an adult, we probably wouldn't be so understanding.
- Lines 17-19: Elizabeth describes the inside of the volcano as black. It's a scary, dark place, and she imagines the volcano erupting and spilling over the pages.
- Lines 28-31: Elizabeth describes the breasts of the black women as "horrifying." For more on this, see the analysis of the women above.
- Lines 56-59: She imagines that she's falling off the earth into "blue-black space" – she's falling into the great unknown out there. Who knows what can happen in a space like this.
- Lines 91-93: Elizabeth ponders blackness again. This time, she pictures the whole waiting room "sliding" over and over beneath black waves. It's like she's drowning in a great big void of the unknown.