Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“In the Waiting Room” is a frequently anthologized poem which describes a moment of awakening consciousness in the poet’s early life. The speaker sets the scene with Bishop’s characteristic attention to minute detail. She has accompanied her Aunt Consuelo to the dentist’s office and waits for her through the dark afternoon or evening of Massachusetts in February. While she waits, she reads a copy of National Geographic, observing the pictures of naked women, a dead man “slung on a pole,” and a volcanic eruption. The pictures of the women both fascinate and horrify the child; she stares at their naked breasts and at the wire adornments binding their necks. At that moment, she hears her aunt’s soft gasp from the dentist’s office, and she is moved by a series of understandings. One is that somehow all of us are united—the child viewer, the aunt, the women in the magazine. “I—we—were falling, falling. . . . ” In fact, she feels everyone is falling off the world, and to stop that sense, she asserts her own identity. She is Elizabeth; she will be seven years old in three days. Still she is moved by the mystery of identity. Why should she be who she is? What binds her to her aunt, her family, the women in the picture? Why should the two of them be here at this particular moment? Bishop often writes about perceptions of time. Here, she pictures it as a black wave about to swallow the waiting room and all its inhabitants. As the poem ends, she feels restored to the ordinary order of things: the place, the time, herself—a February night in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the wartime, 1918.