the past among the present

Elizabeth Bishop’s two poems both concern time and age as they discuss, separately, a fish and the waiting room in a dentist’s office. I have often wondered how much of my life has been spent (wasted) in various waiting rooms, but the level of crisis reached by Bishop in her poem “In the Waiting Room” is something I am fortunate to not have experienced. The poem gets existential pretty quickly and I wasn’t totally on board with or convinced by its rapid descent into questions like “Why should I be my aunt or me or anyone?” and “What similarities…held us all together/or made us all just one?” She monumentalizes the overwhelming experience she had in the dentist’s waiting room by rooting it in a place – Worcester, Massachusetts – and specific time – February 5th, 1918 – as if to archive it in human history, and in doing such she travels back in time. “I said to myself: three days/and you’ll be seven years old.” Time and femaleness appear to have been condensed but I was not left with the same feeling of emotional suffocation that Bishop herself writes of having experienced, I think.

Her poem “The Fish” and Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” both succeed in attributing honor to the seemingly mundane, dull, or overlooked, whether that be an old fish or mining for potatoes. The fish caught in the poem has the same aura of history and wisdom that Heaney’s ancestors have attributed to them. There is a sense of durability to these figures, the fish as “tremendous,” “venerable,” and also “homely” with a “sullen face.” It is also “mechanical,” as are the gestures of Heaney’s ancestors, whom he honors, though will not follow, choosing instead to forge his own path with his pen, his poetry, his divergent reality.

One comment

  • Striking post, Anna, particularly your claim that the vivid descriptions and imagery in the Heaney and Bishop poems work to honor or monumentalize everyday experiences. I also like the emphasis on time, here, as all 4 poems seem to want to make links between different moments while also unfolding a single instance in great detail.

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