Thinking with feelings: a reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ compared with the prose of ‘The Country Mouse’.

Elizabeth Bishop described writing poetry as ‘thinking with feelings’[1]; in the conventional division between logic and emotion, this phrase seems to be an oxymoron; from a different point of view, it is a representation of the ‘unified sensibility’ which Eliot identified in the metaphysical poets. Many readers have recognised the elusive nature of Bishop’s work, even when it seems most straightforward.[2] This arises partly from the accuracy of her descriptions which often seem to have the objectivity of science combined with her use of these observations as part of the process of thinking through what she is feeling so that what she describes always resonates with what lies under the surface. Her poems are notable for how they travel, for their ‘journeys’, even when they are cast in forms as static and restrictive as the villanelle (‘One Art’) and the sestina (‘A Miracle for Breakfast’).[3] Despite her skill and fluency in using fixed forms, many of her poems, particularly the later ones, are in free verse. Most of them are based on personal experience, events or periods which she may also have recorded in memoir or autobiographical fiction, in prose which, like her verse, conveys an observer’s cool objectivity even when what they recount is deeply subjective. 

‘In the Waiting Room’ which appeared in Geography III, (1976), revisits some of the same material as found in the autobiographical memoir, The Country Mouse (1961). Both pieces describe a visit to the dentist with an aunt which triggers a traumatic recognition of selfhood. ‘In the Waiting Room’ is written in free verse and is quite long, nearly three pages of verse; the incident described in prose takes half a page, and uses just over half as many words. Here is the paragraph:

After New Year’s, Aunt Jenny had to go to the dentist, and asked me to go with her. She left me in the waiting room, and gave me a copy of the National Geographic to look at.  It was still getting dark early, and the room had grown very dark.  There was a big yellow lamp in one corner, a table with magazines, and an overhead chandelier of sorts.  There were others waiting, two men and a plump middle-aged lady, all bundled up.  I looked at the magazine cover – I could read most of the words – shiny, glazed, yellow and white. The black letters said: FEBRUARY 1918.  A feeling of absolute and utter desolation came over me.  I felt…myself.  In a few days it would be my seventh birthday.  I felt I, I ,I, and looked at the three strangers in panic.  I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. “You’re in for it now,” something said.  How had I got tricked into such a false position?  I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely once in a while.  The awful sensation passed, then it came back again.  “You are you,” something said.  “How strange you are, inside looking out.  You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be youforever.”  It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The prose, which uses very simple language and syntax in a way which suggests a child’s language or a spoken anecdote, conforms to Labov’s framework for oral narrative,[4] both in structure and linguistic features. It opens with an abstract, telling us what the story will be about – the visit to the dentist. It continues with orientation, with lots of descriptive detail building up time and place ‘the waiting room’, the ‘big yellow lamp’, the ‘overhead chandelier’. Past progressive tenses are used to set the scene: ‘It was still getting dark early’, ‘There were others were waiting’. These are succeeded by simple past verbs indicating that the complicating action of the story has begun; ‘I looked at the magazine cover’, ‘I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic’. The actions are interspersed with evaluation, the writer’s comments on her own story. These feature modal verbs and comparisons with unrealised events: ‘I would be like that woman opposite’, ‘It was like coasting downhill’ as well as intensifying evaluative adjectives such as ‘absolute and utter’ and ‘awful’. The resolution or final action of the story ‘it quickly smashed into a tree’ reveals the writerly nature of this story because the subject of the simile in the ‘unrealized comparison’ ‘it was like coasting downhill”  becomes the actor in the final action, transposing the whole story from literal to metaphor. The message or meaning of the story is carried in the coda: ‘Why was I a human being?’ The writer has simultaneously recognised her own selfhood and that she is a member of a species.  She is both ‘you forever’ and ‘one of them’.

Bishop’s story or anecdote differs from the account of the same incident as presented in the poem, but neither of them are factual accounts of what actually happened. [5] Although both are very carefully located in time and space, they describe a subjective experience or memory which is unverifiable.  Despite shared features, which make it clear that they are different explorations of the same event, we can see that in each, Bishop thinks with feelings which take her and her readers to different places and that these differences are realised through differences in content, structure and form.

In the prose paragraph, Bishop focuses on her self, on the discovery of her selfhood, ‘I felt… myself’ and thinks through what it is to have that feeling. The ellipsis and the italics emphasize the shock of recognition as does the second use of italics and repetition, ‘I, I, I’ as she struggles to understand the significance of the first person pronouns. Italics are used again for ‘you’ and ‘one’, as she tours around the idea of self.  There is a peculiar dialectic at work as she moves between the feeling of individuation, separate from the world, ‘not Beppo[6], or the chestnut tree, or Emma’, and recognition of herself as part of the species, ‘I was one of them’. Part of this unwelcome realisation is a strong awareness of the restriction of physicality. Just as the middle-aged woman opposite her is ‘all bundled up’ so she is confined ‘inside her scabby body and wheezing lungs.’[7] The sense of revulsion she feels against the others in the waiting room becomes self-disgust. As well as the restrictions of the flesh, and of clothes, she also anticipates being bound into the social code, of smiling ‘falsely’ as she accuses the middle-aged woman of doing. 

This is a dramatic story, presented, as we have seen, in narrative form; even though the events are thoughts not deeds and entirely subjective, they are given a setting and then recounted in a succession of past simple verbs: ‘I looked’, ‘the black letters said’, ‘ a feeling…came over me’, ‘I felt’, ‘the awful sensation passed…came back’, ‘it quickly smashed’.  As in oral narrative, the author evaluates or comments events as she recounts them.  In the poem, however, the sequence of events, while still present, takes second place to the thinking through and expanding on the feelings experienced.

The poem opens with the same setting as the prose, in a dentist’s waiting room on a winter afternoon. The language at the beginning of the poem is paratactic, using short sentences and clauses connected by ‘and’:

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.

This could create the effect of a child’s perceptions, but it also suggests that the writer is tiptoeing around the experience before she begins to explore the feelings it evoked.  Notably, the poem is firmly placed in Massachusetts, home of Bishop’s family on her father’s side whom she lived with after her early years in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents. She never felt as comfortable in this second placement so the emphasis on location may prepare us for the sense of alienation later in the poem. Although at this point the poem is following the narrative structure of the prose, already evaluation is coming to the fore as the writer examines the significance of her story for her, rather than simply telling it. The modal verb in the parenthesis, ‘(I could read)’, may suggest the adult looking back at the child’s experience, perhaps with a sense of pride, but possibly also reassuring herself about the moment or stage in her own development.  When she notes that she ‘carefully’ studied the photographs, we are again detached from the child’s experience and shown the adult looking back, rather as if the camera had pulled back from a shot of the magazine to show the whole scene: a precocious child sitting on a chair with a magazine which is not appropriate for her surrounded by adults she doesn’t know. 

A major difference from the prose version is the importance of this National Geographic magazine. In the prose, we never get past the cover but here we dive straight into the content of what is implied to be the February 1918 issue. Apparently Bishop checked the magazine in 1967, when she was near to completing the poem, confirming ‘a photo essay on  “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” that “has been haunting me all my life, apparently”’.[8] The pictures in this essay, which was about Alaska ,have been conflated with many other images from elsewhere. For instance, Osa and Martin Johnson, an American couple who were explorers, were in the Pacific in 2017 and the story of their adventures was made into a feature film but I can find no trace of them in the contents of the National Geographic in February 2018 or any of the issues for the previous year. I can remember from my school library, or possibly also from dentist or doctor waiting rooms, those yellow bordered and often dog-eared National Geographics, which were supposedly educational but provided insights into the truths about adult human bodies, so decorously clothed in everyday life. I also remember pictures of African women with their necks impossibly extended by an accumulation of neck rings.  After the protracted, almost fearful orientation stage of the poem, she plunges from a colon into a collage of photographs which opens with a terrifying, hell-like description of a volcano:

the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

This is one of several dizzying and disorienting moments in the poem. Suddenly, it is as if we are no longer in the waiting room but inside the volcano made more terrifying by the active verbs which convey movement despite being based on a still photograph, quite probably in black and white. It functions as a transition and is paralleled by the transition at the end when the protagonist emerges from her altered state back into the here and now of the waiting room:

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.

The way she presents the return to everyday consciousness in the poem is very different from the metaphor of smashing into a tree in the prose. It is an inward-looking attempt to describe a loss of control or even of consciousness and creates a sense of vertigo and nausea through the blackness of the wave which complements the blackness of the volcano, two elemental and overwhelming images of fire and water.

The volcano is succeeded by a succession of pictures, which could represent the way the little girl turns the pages,[9] focusing mainly on the photographs, despite her reading skills. The impact of these images is to make her recognise her nature as a human, specifically as a human animal and a gendered human animal at that.

Rather strangely, the first image Bishop notes is of Osa and Martin Johnson, ‘dressed in riding breeches,/laced boots, and pith helmets.’  It may be that she is trying to diminish or dismiss gender difference: she names Osa first, and presents the pair in unisex clothing. However, the following pages or images, which show people undressed, defeat this attempt: ‘black, naked women’ with ‘horrifying’ breasts.  It is striking that so many of the images she details are connected to mutilation: ‘A dead man slung on a pole’, ‘Babies with pointed heads/wound round and round with string’, ‘women with necks/ wound round and round by wire’. The impression of humanity which the child is forming is one of ugliness and vulnerability. The theme of pain and mutilation is transferred from the magazine to the dentist’s surgery through the verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain

It is not immediately clear whether the pain has come from inside the magazine or inside the surgery, so that ‘Aunt Consuelo’ is put on a level with the ‘black, naked women’. The choice of name for her may also contribute to this, whether deliberately or not. The change from ‘Jenny’ in the prose, comfortably white Anglo-Saxon, suggests Latino, and a lower, oppressed class, an ‘other’ type of humanity. The ‘othering’ of Aunt Consuelo is intensified when Bishop describes her as ‘a foolish, timid woman’. Being foolish and timid, like having ‘awful hanging breasts’, may be part of the condition of being a woman from which Bishop seeks to detach herself. Almost immediately, the perception of the other is overwhelmed by the perception of sameness:

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

Again, as boundaries blur and disappear in a fusion of first person plural and singular, there is the sense of vertigo: ‘I- we – were falling, falling’.  In the following stanza, Bishop explores further this new confusion over ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘them’.  She splits herself into ‘I’ and ‘you’ in order to conduct an internal dialogue: ‘I said to myself’; this is a process of ratiocination, used to stave off the existential nausea she is experiencing:

I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.

Although she is thinking, she is thinking with feelings: 

But I felt:[10] you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

Bishop succeeds brilliantly in showing not only the child coming to an awareness but also the terrifying instability of that self. Recognition of self demands the recognition of, and implies the perpetual struggle to maintain separateness from the other. The result is a confusion which resists language:

How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here

‘Unlikely’ resonates first because of its inadequacy and understatement and then because of its root which is the theme of the poem, ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness’, together with the second meaning of ‘unliking’, not enjoying or not being pleased by something, an emotion which is much stronger here than in the prose. The poem ends as it began, with an orientation. However, in this case, the protagonist is orienting herself, establishing the ‘here and now’ which she has so dizzyingly been removed from.


[1] Quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[2] In the Bloodaxe collection of essays, Elizabeth Bishop – Poet of the Periphery, ed. Linda Anderson &Jo Shapcott, 2002, Linda Anderson says that ‘her value seems to elude definition’ while Deryn Rees-Jones admits the ‘mixture of love and resistance’ which has made it hard for her to write about Bishop’s work.

[3] Bishop’s effective use of the sestina and the villanelle have almost won me over to these forms, to which I have previously expressed my antipathy.

[4] Labov’s narrative model
Table and exercise adapted from Sample Unit, Simpson, Paul. Stylistics. London: Routledge, 2005 http://www.routledge.com/textbooks/0415281059/  https://webpages.uncc.edu/~bdavis/LabovHymes.pdf

[5] Bishop’s aunt was not called Jenny or Consuelo.

[6] A dog

[7] Bishop suffered from asthma and eczema.

[8] Letter to Robert Lowell, quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[9] Even though the images included may come from a variety of times and sources. The photograph below from Megan Marshall’s biography was taken by Bishop in her exploration of the interior of Brazil in 1958. ‘Pointy-headed babies’ is probably also an image from the South America. The Olmec people of Mexico apparently bound their babies’ heads to produce a shape like an ear of corn. (Neil MacGregor, History of the World in 100 Objects, Radio 4, repeated 27.08.2020)

[10] My underlining