What Are We Waiting For?

“In the Waiting Room”

Elizabeth Bishop

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.

It was winter.  It got dark

early. The waiting room

was full of grown-up people,

arctics and overcoats,

lamps and magazines.

My aunt was inside

what seemed like a long time

and while I waited and read

the National Geographic

(I could read) and carefully

studied the photographs:

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.

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 right straight through.

I was too shy to stop.

And then I looked at the cover:

the yellow margins, the date.

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,

but wasn’t.  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.

I said to myself: three days

and you’ll be seven years old.

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world.

into cold, blue-black space.

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?

I scarcely dared to look

to see what it was I was.

I gave a sidelong glance

–I couldn’t look any higher–

at shadowy gray knees,

trousers and skirts and boots

and different pairs of hands

lying under the lamps.

I knew that nothing stranger

had ever happened, that nothing

stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the National Geographic

and those awful hanging breasts

held us all together

or made us all just one?

How I didn’t know any

word for it how “unlikely”. . .

How had I come to be here,

like them, and overhear

a cry of pain that could have

got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright

and too hot.  It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another.

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.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” has been viewed by many as a poem in which a young girl, while sitting in a waiting room, looks through the images in National Geographic and has some kind of existential crisis. Although the speaker in the poem may seem far too mature for a girl of only seven years old, she is able to bring the reader into her moment in time and poses that question we all know will never truly be answered: Why do we exist?

The young girl in the poem is both enticed and horrified with the images she views in National Geographic. She experiences something like a culture shock as she views the “awful hanging breasts” of naked women from a different world. Although she realizes the differences between these women and herself and indeed feels a departure from their world, she, at the same time, experiences a inherit connection due to the fact that we are all human and living on this one world.

When do we realize we are human? I know this question may seem far too existential and trippy for my own good, but recently reading and analyzing Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” has caused me to think about the times before we realize we are an “I”, as Bishop’s speaker refers to the individual. I remember some moment, or perhaps it was many moments throughout my earlier years, that I would view horrific images or hear shocking stories of humans in other parts of the world and, although I felt grief for their lives, I realized I has avoided being in those situations simply because of where I was born.

This may change as we grow and mature, but we have no say whatsoever in the initial circumstances to which we come into the world. We are born where and when we are born just because that’s how it worked out. Imagine you were born someplace where you didn’t have a computer to read this and even if you did, you don’t speak the language. I’m not saying this other life would be any better or worse than the one you live now, but think about how different you would be if you had simply been born somewhere and sometime else. You wouldn’t even be you. You’d be some other model of yourself, perhaps with the same framework, but equipped with different gears and maybe even a faster engine.

Photo by Wikimedia user Thebrid

About Lyssa Goldberg

Lyssa Goldberg is a junior at Boston University majoring in magazine journalism, with a minor in psychology and being a sarcastic Long Islander. She joined the Quad with the intention of introducing poetry in a way that could be relatable to the Boston University student population, and has trying to do that (plus share some thoughts on life) ever since.

View all posts by Lyssa Goldberg →

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