Elisabeth Bishop is definitely the master of survival. Although she does not rebel violently against the untruthfulness of the world, she projects onto the reader a good example of how to survive seemingly unbearable tragedies in life, should they be the loss of parents or a lover, or even a lost door key.
It is no wonder that the poet’s work is rediscovered in recent years. For the question why would even all of her drafts be reprinted in 2006, the poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke answers brilliantly in his article entitled: Casual Perfection: Why Did the Publication of Elizabeth Bishop's Drafts Cause Uproar?.
The answer, I think, has to do with the mystery at the core of Bishop's work: the way her poetry evokes powerful, intimate feelings without devolving into mere self-revelation. Bishop chose a path of aesthetic discretion at a time when many of her peers were pursuing, to great acclaim, confessional self-disclosure. […] Bishop wrote at a time when academic studiousness was one vogue (Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell) and self-revelation another (Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). Following neither, she carved out an original niche, a poetics of subtle observation. (1-2)
The poet Elisabeth Bishop had to suffer defeats and live through many tragedies in her life. She lost her parents very early and was raised by her grandmother – who was very old and – from the poem Sestina - it is also obvious that she was poor. It could be for Bishop extremely difficult to look up to her grandmother as someone to identify with. She had to find someone closer to herself, who she can look up to as a model.
In the poem In the Waiting Room we get acquainted with Aunt Consuelo, the aunt of the persona. The young child – almost seven years old – waits for her in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. The child is surrounded by adults: “[t]he waiting room was full of grown- up people” (7-8), and tries to behave herself like they do. Even though she is only seven years old, she reads a magazine, and is able to share the most important details with the reader. The reader has a colorful, highly imagist description of the surroundings of both the waiting room and the content of the magazine.
The poem is full of poetic images. Every single aspect of the young child’s day is described with negative images. All of the “grown-ups” at the dentist’s are waiting because they are suffering and because they have pain. Until that point, it would have been natural for the persona to paint a sad picture of the circumstances, but still, almost all the poetic images are about death, loss and pain.
The problematic of childhood and adulthood is very sadly presented in the poem. Even Aunt Consuelo is described as a “foolish, timid woman” (42). Even though the persona has no good opinion of her aunt, she identifies with her. She feels that she behaves in the same way as her aunt does, and feels total empathy towards her. The reason why she does so could be that she has no one closer to her to identify with.
There seems to be a resignation in the poem, as we can feel it in many other poems of Bishop. She has to reconcile herself to the fact that the adult world is all about effort in vain. Furthermore, there is even some implication that for the persona it seems that adulthood is identified with death. The poem is set in a dark, winter night, and the people are “grey”. In the magazine, the persona reads about a volcano, full of ashes, which is also a symbol of death.
I […] read
the National Geographic
[…] and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
blank, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire (13-20)
The young child evidently suffers from the loss of her parents, and looks scared to other adults. The poet chose a perfect scene to illustrate the deepness of this scarcity, that is unresolved, but for the careful reader still brilliantly presented. In the waiting room, all the adults are waiting to be absolved from their pains; however they know it is possible only through much greater pain, through sacrifice. With the clever and sad description of the scene, the poet could let the reader imagine the part of our life when we know we would soon die and we are already waiting for it. People know that death will cause pain, but maybe it is better after that, there exists a hope that after death all our pains- both physically and spiritually- will be absolved, and we could rest.