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Episode Info: This week on StoryWeb: Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” I’ve featured Elizabeth Bishop previously on StoryWeb. “The Moose” – set in Bishop’s home province of Nova Scotia – is one of my favorite poems, as it tells so powerfully the ordinary – but extraordinary – experience we all have from time to time: an encounter with wild life, with the “wild life.” Set in 1918 and written in 1976, “In the Waiting Room” – set in another of Bishop’s childhood locales, Worcester, Massachusetts – also tells a tale of an experience that is common to everyone: coming into conscious awareness of oneself as a separate person, a being who can feel pain, alone in a large and often alienating world. What is not at all common is young Elizabeth’s awareness of this moment of coming into consciousness. Is the young Elizabeth aware of this as it is happening? Or is it the older adult Elizabeth who looks back and recognizes what this moment was? Or is the young Elizabeth perhaps in a kind of conversation with her adult self who seeks to make meaning out of a “strange” experience? Young Elizabeth – about to turn seven in just three days – sits in a waiting room while her Aunt Consuelo has a dentist appointment. Surrounded by “grown-up people, / arctics and overcoats,” the young girl picks up a National Geographic (with its classic yellow border). She pores over photographs of the inside of a volcano, the explorers Osa and Martin Johnson (“dressed in riding breeches, / laced boots, and pith helmets”), and “[a] dead man slung on a pole,” captioned as “long pig,” presumably destined to be eaten by cannibals. Most startling, however, are the “[b]abies with pointed heads / wound round and round with string” and the “black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire,” women with “horrifying” breasts. Lost in her exploration of the National Geographic, Elizabeth is startled by the sound of her aunt as she cries out with “an oh! of pain.” As she snaps to attention back into the cold, dark, winter world of Worcester, Elizabeth has “the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world. / into cold, blue-black space.” Surrounded by “shadowy gray knees, / trousers and skirts and boots,” the young girl has what can only be called an existential awakening. The adult Bishop writes: But I felt: you are an I, you are anRead more »

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