In the Waiting Room

“In the Waiting Room” is a poem written by a girl reflecting on a past experience of waiting in the reception room of a dentist’s office, looking at a 1918 issue of National Geographic (noted for its articles on anthropology, nature, and culture) while her aunt is keeping a dentist appointment.

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.

From the opening stanza, Elizabeth paints a very ordinary picture and describes specifically where the poem is taking place – in the waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts. Nothing so unusual about that. She then shifts the mood by describing it as winter, which is the season most associated with death or a state of sleeping. Darkness comes early and can also symbolize death or the subconscious.

We know the poem is about a young girl because she describes the other people waiting in the room as “grown-up people,” specifically notes that she can read, and later mentions that she will be seven in three days (three days can also represent resurrection). While the poem begins in an outward setting, it soon turns inward to Elizabeth’s own psyche.

My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I 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.

As she is studying and not merely gazing at the pictures in the magazine, she describes a volcano, “black, and full of ashes.” This imagery resembles death and cremation but is  followed by a spilling over of “rivulets of fire” possibly symbolizing an awakening and overflowing of Elizabeth’s own emotions and thoughts.

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.

The description of the picture of two famous explorers in proper civilized attire juxtaposed against a picture of a dead man slung on a pole causes a sense of confusion. How can one exist at the same time as the other? The strange pictures of pointy-headed babies, women with wired necks and “horrifying breasts” alarms Elizabeth. We can see her attempt to make sense of what she is seeing by comparing the wired neck to a light bulb which is something familiar. The double use of the word round illustrates just how intense the image is but could also symbolize the concept of eternity which is the equivalent of insanity.

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 find it interesting the contradiction Elizabeth shows when she writes she was “too shy to stop” reading the magazine implying her own timidity and then follows that with her declaration that her aunt is a foolish, timid woman when she hears her aunt cry out in pain. Elizabeth then has a moment of realizing it is also herself who cries out in pain (on the inside) and she and her aunt are one.

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.

She follows this train of thought by asking what makes her different from these grown-ups in the waiting room, the pointy-headed babies, the wired-necked women with long hanging breasts, and the dead man slung on the pole.

This is what one would refer to as an existentialist flippin crisis. Kind of heavy for a six-year-old. Her identity becomes untethered at this point as she is free floating or free-falling in the idea of humanity.

Before Elizabeth anchors herself back to the reality of the bright, hot, waiting room on a cold February day in the year 1918, she questions why she should be any of them, what makes her one of them, what makes her different, how has she come to even be there and what did any of it even mean?

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?

Then just like that she is “back in it.” She restates the town and state where she is, the weather and date, and the fact that the War is still on. She comes out of herself and into “reality” although her perception of reality must certainly have shifted.

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.

I really enjoyed this poem immensely and the idea that it was from a child’s perspective made it even more affecting. The idea of the innocence of childhood being lost in the immensity of humanity and all that entails (think of the devastation of the war and the dead man slung on the pole) is even more profound because Elizabeth is a child.

 

 

 

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