Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Frames of Reference: Paterson in "In the Waiting Room"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Frames of Reference: Paterson in "In the Waiting Room"

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Bishop built her much-beloved late poem "In the Waiting Room" on a childhood memory of reading National Geographic. Her memory, however, was pointedly inaccurate: the "grown-up" poet who speaks "In the Waiting Room" invented the riveting photographs that the child Elizabeth sees in "National Geographic, / February, 1918" (Complete Poems 160). Bishop's photofiction is not news. Already 15 years ago, Brett Millier observed that many of Bishop's contemporary critics "fairly cackled with glee at catching her in an inconsistency" (445). (Such relish was misguided. Bishop readily admitted the fictionality of her recollected National Geographic both publicly and privately.(1)) Although in the intervening years. Bishop's invented photographs--especially one of topless African women--have been read as coded deposits of the poet's homosexuality or political worldview, (2) the literary referentiality of Bishop's citation of the magazine remains largely unexamined. For what other text might National Geographic stand? Or: what does Bishop read under "the cover / of National Geographic, / February, 1918"? This essay argues that "In the Waiting Room" activates two kinds of allusion. Wrapping an iconic pop-cultural reference around a high literary allusion, Bishop's treatment of the ubiquitous National Geographic echoes and alters the "Geographic picture" lyric that William Carlos Williams plants early in Paterson I. I contend that the occasional text of "In the Waiting Room," National Geographic, participates in the collapse of chronology on which the poem relies throughout. (3) As the speaker's adult perspective frames the telling of her childhood experience, so the speaker's adult reading inflects the child's reading. As the speaker reads "grown-up" matter over her child self's shoulder, Bishop superimposes Williams's reading of National Geographic in Paterson I onto her own recollection of reading National Geographic.

I am less concerned with proving the intentionality of Bishop's allusion to Williams than with exploring the viability, and the consequences for interpretation, of the intertextual claim. Nothing in Bishop's letters, drafts, or extrapoetic commentary will confirm that she had Williams in mind as she wrote "In the Waiting Room." In place of such "hard" evidence, I juxtapose Paterson I and "In the Waiting Room" and link the two poems by way of close readings and telling contingencies of Bishop's and Williams's intertwined publication histories. I contend that lack of such conventional evidence ought not preclude examination of an audible echo--certainly not when the examination underwrites a new reading of one of Bishop's most important poems and unsettles acquired accounts of her poetic persona. Bishop's reputation for modesty and deference has recently undergone vital critical revision, especially around the question of her political engagement. Those early overworn points of reference, though, continue to limit readings of Bishop's poetic engagement, of how this "poets poet" also responded critically to poetic models and precedents.(4) This essay, then, moves toward redressing that limitation by taking the hint of Paterson I in "In the Waiting Room."

A final introductory point: if accustomed modes of reading Bishop or her work have forestalled consideration of her allusion to Williams in "In the Waiting Room," then the difficulty of classifying her citation only compounds the problem. Parody, refutation, revision, critique: these pointed terms do not quite capture the simultaneous blatancy and understatement of Bishop's allusive mode in "In the Waiting Room." Her response to Williams is most helpfully approached as a methodological problem, as strategic misdirection. Responding to Williams, Bishop's poem capitalizes on the conspicuousness of both the National Geographic and its pictures of half-naked women; the ubiquity of the magazine and the notoriety of that particular genre of photograph hide her reference to Paterson I in plain sight. …

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