"In the Waiting Room" has short and clear lines. When you read the poem out loud, it sounds pretty clipped and matter-of-fact. Even the big emotional moments of the poem (when Elizabeth is asking all of those deep, unanswered questions) are pretty straightforward. And though the speaker is no longer the six-year-old Elizabeth in the poem – she's narrating from a future point in time and looking back on this experience – the poem has some of the simplicity of child's speech. A really smart child's speech, that is. The older, speaking Elizabeth does a great job of recreating her experience as a young girl.
The title sets the scene of the poem, which takes place in the waiting room of a dentist's office. It's kind of a strange place to set a poem. It's somewhere you go just to, well, wait for something else to happen. It's an uncertain place, and it can be a little scary, especially if you can hear cries from inside the dentist's office while you're waiting.
"In the Waiting Room" takes place in… wait for it… a waiting room.
More specifically, it takes place in the waiting room at a dentist's office. Sound exciting to you? Not really? Actually, the waiting room is kind of an interesting place. There's nothing to do there except, you know, wait. While you're waiting, your mind is free to wander wherever it pleases. Elizabeth's imagination takes her to volcanoes, to space, to an ocean of dark waves. Not too bad for a trip to the dentist, we think.
The speaker of the poem is Elizabeth, who may or may not be Elizabeth Bishop herself, who may or may not be recounting a real childhood experience. As we discussed in our "Summary," some of the "facts" of the poem are not actually true. The February 1918 edition of National Geographic does include photos of volcanoes, but it doesn't actually include any of the other things that Elizabeth mentions. There are no naked women, no babies, and no dead men on poles.
This makes us question whether we can read the poem as autobiography. Actually, this makes us pretty sure that we can't read the poem as such. It's a fictionalized and poeticized version of an actual life event. (Or is it? Did Bishop make the whole thing up and name her speaker Elizabeth just to toy with us? You never know how poets get their kicks.)
The other important thing to realize about the speaker is that she's telling the story in the past tense. In this way, there are two Elizabeths in the poem. There's the young Elizabeth in the waiting room, and then there's the older Elizabeth who recounts her experience in the waiting room. We don't really know how much time has passed between the telling of the poem and the actual event. Has it been a year? Ten years? Fifty years? There's no way to know for sure.
This poem isn't too hard to understand. What is hard about it is those darn questions that Elizabeth raises. What are the answers, Liz Bishop? What is the meaning of life? Fortunately for us, not knowing the answers to life's big questions is okay in this poem. (But if you do have all the answers, please share. We’d love to know).
Bishop is known for her finely tuned and precise poems. In a Bishop poem, every word matters. She is a master of detailed description. She doesn't just tell us that she's reading National Geographic, she tells us the date of the issue. She doesn't just talk about the knees of the patients in the waiting room, she tells us about their "shadowy gray knees." Outer space isn't black, it's "blue-black." This woman knows how to create a world in her poems.
This poem was written in free verse; it has no set rhyme scheme or meter. One interesting thing about the poem's form is that, in a way, it shrinks as it goes along.
The poem is made up of five stanzas. The first two are quite long, but they get progressively shorter. The stanzas become short once Elizabeth asks her big questions. Since Elizabeth is never able to answer the questions, the poem falls apart into those last two very small stanzas. It's almost like the gaps between the stanzas reflect her inability to answer the big questions that she poses. Instead of answers, we get (almost) silence. So, even though the poem is free verse, its form still affects its meaning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This isn't exactly a sexy poem, but we'll go ahead and give it a PG-13 for nudity.