Waiting for Adulthood: Aging in “In the Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses”
Elizabeth Bishop ends her famous poem “One Art” with the lines, “It’s evident the art of losing isn’t too hard to master / though it may look like… disaster.” Although “One Art” lists many literal and symbolic forms of loss, the one that becomes the most prominent in Bishop’s poetry is the loss of time. Likewise, her poems “In the Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses” both display the relationship between individuals’ personal development and the passing of time. In this essay, I intend to explore the different ways in which Bishop uses imagery to demonstrate growth and maturity over time in these poems.
Although “At the Fishhouses,” which was first published in 1947, uses imagery of age and seasons very similar to that in “The Waiting Room,” which was not written until the 1970s, which suggests The speaker of the poem begins by saying, “Although it is a cold evening, / down by one of the fishhouses / an old man sits netting.” In emphasizing the cold weather, Bishop is placing the beginning of the timeline in the late fall or winter. With the old man sitting in the cold, perhaps with the risk of freezing by the water, she appears to also be inviting the reader to think of this time as the season of death, or at the very least the season of harsh stillness. Winter is a time in which growth ceases––plants die, animals hibernate, and people retreat to their warm homes––but this man is sitting by the fishhouses in the icy cold regardless. The speaker proceeds to remark on the “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / the clear gray icy water,” reiterating the old man’s presence in an unusual place, and she then notes that “Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin.” These “dignified tall firs” have grown from seedlings, so the fact that they are literally behind both the speaker and the old man might suggest that the trees are part of their pasts, and that they are even older than the trees. Later on, the poem’s conclusion indicates the speaker’s acceptance of the passage of time and knowledge when she notes that the present tastes like “… what we imagine knowledge to be: … utterly free … drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.” By comparing the current place and time to the knowledge people can only hope to find in life, the speaker is demonstrating her contentedness, acceptance, and perhaps even a sense of achievement for growing up and finding peace.
The references to weather and the inclusion of time as an entity in “At the Fishhouses” bear several parallels to those in “In the Waiting Room,” but in the latter, they seem to indicate the speaker’s more apprehensive attitude towards the passing of time. When the speaker says “Outside / … were night and slush and cold / and it was still the fifth / of February, 1918,” it seems that she is referring to the younger version of the speaker, perhaps the young Elizabeth Bishop, returning to her present after being sporadically bounced around between her past, present, and future––she is neither full adult nor full child, because she is only 6, but is now aware of the growth, being, and understanding of adults after reading National Geographic and hearing her aunt scream from the dentist’s chair. This apparently traumatic jolt into the adult world may be the cause for the speaker’s amnesty towards growing older, which seems to be what she is suggesting when her language moves quickly from that of childhood to that of adulthood, which she does at the beginning of the poem when she speaks in very matter-of-fact terms about her surroundings, saying “It was winter. It got dark / early. The waiting room / was full of grown-up people, / arctics and overcoats.” This technique presents to the reader a childish stream of consciousness and the antsiness of waiting not only to leave the dentist’s office, but also to grow up. In adopting the voice of a child in this poem and finding herself displeased rather than at peace with the winter weather, the speaker seems to be suggesting that she prefers another time than the one she is currently in with both age and season.
Another unique way of presenting the passage of time in these two poems is the use of imagery that indicates tenderness and perhaps even childishness, and each method outlines a different attitude towards time elapsing. While the movement to and from adulthood is central to “In the Waiting Room” since the emphasis is on fast-paced growth and maturity, early life and tender roots are glazed over in “At the Fishhouses,” which focuses primarily on the present moment despite the artistic acknowledgments of what is literally and figuratively behind her. Meanwhile, in “In the Waiting Room,” the young speaker moves back and forth between childhood and adulthood in her language. She first notes how long she has been waiting for her aunt, and she shares with the reader in a childlike manner that she is reading National Geographic because “(she could read).” As the memory of her eyes moving from the science section with the volcano to the high-style section with horses to the culture section featuring the naked women, she is shocked into adulthood by the images of a world she’s not yet a part of. Immediately after she sees the image of the woman’s “horrifying breasts,” she is spurred into womanhood: her aunt’s voice escapes her lips. While “At the Fishhouses” represents the steady acceptance of this role in the world years later, the speaker is too young to accept this. Although she “ knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen,” she returns to childhood as she ponders her upcoming birthday. Ultimately, though, this moment of change has a lasting impact: she cannot help but wonder why it is that she will become a woman, asking herself “Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone? What similarities /… held us all together / or made us all just one?” Although the adult speaker in “At the Fishhouses” may not be able to answer this fully, she does demonstrate the fact that something holds all adults together, and that adulthood must eventually be accepted.
In conclusion, “The Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses both display the relationship between personal development and time passing, but the first shows the reader how it can be sporadic while the second demonstrates how it is eventually accepted. Although the two have different perspectives, they both explore the different ways in which Bishop uses imagery to display growth and maturity over time in her poetry.
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