Poem – 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.