Daily Archives: 25 September 2009

#42 “In the Waiting Room” (Elizabeth Bishop)

“In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop provides a simple, familiar situation for which we don’t really have a name. It might be termed an “existential moment,” though that phrase is too vague. It’s the moment when you realize that existence, for want of a better word, exists. There’s no way out of it – well, death is a way out, but there is no way out of death itself. The option never to have been is unavailable.

Until a young person reaches that moment, the question of existence or nonexistence is pretty much all the same: not worth thinking about, because it’s never really presented itself as a genuine problem. Such a young person can act like someone who’s passed that watershed, talk like them, read Hamlet like them. But the instant that that existential moment is past, the child enters a different plane of existence.

For Bishop’s speaker (who is called “Elizabeth” and is the same age as the poet, but it hardly matters if it’s “really” her or not) the realization of her own existence is bound up with the realization that she is both connected to and separate from other people, particularly her aunt. (The “real” Elizabeth Bishop did not have an “Aunt Consuelo.”) Not as fused to her as a parent or even grandparent might be, the aunt is nonetheless so close as to seem almost the same person at certain moments – to have the speaker’s voice, her mannerisms. It’s like looking in a mirror, said by some psychologists to mark a crucial moment in development. But it’s a mirror with a mind of its own; it’s a separate person. When we realize that the world is full of free agents, and that we too are free agents, the awe of a single, separate existence becomes instantly alive for us.

I don’t know of any other poems that talk quite so perfectly about an experience we surely all feel but have no words for. There are several others on the Countdown, still to come, that talk about children, maturity, existence, and empathy. But “In the Waiting Room” is a stark description of an essential moment. Since it can’t be analyzed, it’s appropriate to poetry, where the only words are those of feelings, not of clinical psychology.

At the same time, the language is completely plain, not dressed up in the slightest. It resembles that of a child. In fact the child might have said exactly this – but we suspect that it took her 50 years to find the right words.