Elizabeth Bishop 

  In the Waiting Room 

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 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. 
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. 

The Complete Poems  1927-1979
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983